More than 47 million Americans are over the age of 65. That number is expected to soar to more than 70 million by 2030. While most of us plan to stay active and independent well into our senior years, that isn’t possible for some. In fact, more than a million people live in nursing homes right now.
The vast majority of nursing homes provide excellent care for seniors. Most, but not all. That’s why it’s crucial to know the warning signs of nursing home abuse, so you can protect your loved ones before it’s too late.
We’ll identify the red flags to watch out for, and we’ll explain what you can do to prevent nursing home abuse.
The signs of physical abuse are often the easiest to spot, if you’re in frequent contact with your loved one in a nursing home. That’s the key here – frequent contact. It isn’t always possible for us to visit our elderly relatives every day, so you might consider asking friends, neighbors or church members to help you.
The most common signs of physical abuse include:
- Unexplained broken bones, dislocations or sprains
- Visible bruises, scars or welts
- Signs of restraint, like marks on the elderly person’s wrists or ankles
- Broken eyeglasses or other personal items
- Medication that isn’t being taken according to the doctor’s orders
That last one can be difficult to spot, but it can be life-threatening. The best way to confirm your loved one is being properly treated is to assemble a medication guide or chart with the help of the person’s doctor(s).
Write down every medication the doctor prescribed, along with the dosage and refill instructions. You might even include a photo of the pill or injection, so you can recognize it easily.
Ask to see your loved one’s chart every time you visit and confirm that all medications are being administered appropriately. Any reputable nursing home will share that information with you.
Do not rely on information from the patient as your only source. Elderly patients often have trouble keeping up with their medications. They may not remember taking their pills, or they may confuse their days. In fact, that’s often the reason they’re in the nursing home to begin with.
Emotional abuse can take many forms, and it’s not always easy to pick up on. The most common signs are:
- Unusual behavior in the elderly person including mumbling, thumb-sucking or rocking
- Unexplained anxiety or fear in the presence of certain caregivers
- Sudden withdrawal from loved ones, including failure to make eye contact and a reluctance to talk about their days in the nursing home
- A refusal to see visitors
- The loss of personal items such as photographs or journals
Pay attention if you notice your loved one isn’t displaying family photographs or isn’t wearing special items like a necklace or bracelet. Abusive caregivers may withhold those items as a form of “punishment”.
Ask the staff where those items are, and why they’re missing. There may be a logical explanation. Your loved one may find a necklace uncomfortable, for example. But, if the staff can’t find the items or can’t explain why they’re gone, that’s a huge red flag.
If you’re suddenly denied visits with your loved one and are being told the person doesn’t want to see you, insist on more information. Isolation is a warning sign of emotional and psychological abuse.
Sexual abuse of elderly patients is horrifying to think about, but it does happen. Women are six times more likely to be victims of elder sexual abuse than men.
The most common signs of elder sexual abuse include:
- Unexplained sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) or other genital infections
- Bruising near the genitals or around the breasts
- Stained, bloody or torn underwear
- Vaginal or anal bleeding
Elder sexual abuse can be extremely difficult to spot, primarily because relatives and friends don’t often see the elderly person’s private areas. We don’t ask our loved ones if they have certain infections, and we don’t inspect their underwear.
We have to play detective if we suspect sexual abuse. This is another example of why it’s important to review the elderly person’s medical chart every time you visit.
Look for new medications, especially antibiotics. If you see a new medication, ask the nursing home staff what it’s for.
Watch your loved one carefully to see if they exhibit any troubling behaviors. They may be visibly uncomfortable or need to scratch their genital area, for example.
Don’t be afraid to inspect their dirty laundry, either. If you have access to their clothes hamper, take a quick peek. Make sure you don’t see blood or other troubling body fluids.
Neglect can cover a variety of abuses that may not be as obvious as physical abuse. Nevertheless, neglect can be emotionally and physically devastating to your loved one.
Here are the common signs to watch for:
- Leaving the elderly personal alone in public if the nursing home provides field trips to shops or events
- Dressed inappropriately for the weather – no sweater in the cold or too many layers on a hot day
- Lack of attention to the patient’s hygiene
- Soiled linens or dirty clothes
- Bedsores from not turning the patient regularly
- Unexplained weight loss
Your loved one may complain of being hungry or thirsty. He may tell you he’s afraid to go on field trips that he previously enjoyed.
You may detect an unpleasant smell in the patient’s room. Some odors are unavoidable but should be temporary. For example, a nursing home patient may require diapers that can smell when they need to be changed.
If you notice a persistent smell that doesn’t go away with a change of diapers or fresh sheets, it could indicate neglect. The patient may not receive regular baths, or her clothes may not be washed every day.
Elder financial abuse and fraud costs older Americans as much as 36 billion dollars every year. Examples of this kind of abuse can range from small amounts of cash missing from their room to the theft of their entire estate.
Here are the warning signs:
- Unexplained withdrawals from the elderly person’s bank accounts
- Changes in their power of attorney, their life insurance beneficiaries or policies or their wills
- Cash or valuable items like jewelry missing from the patient’s room
- New names added to their bank accounts or credit cards
- Services or subscriptions the patient couldn’t have ordered
Protecting nursing home patients from financial abuse often starts with limits on access to their accounts and their cash. For example, find out how much cash they need to have with them. Do they really need to buy items in the nursing home and if so, how much do they spend every week?
Try to limit the number of people who can access their bank accounts and credit cards. If it’s appropriate, designate one or two trusted family members as signers on the accounts. Only those people should be able to write checks or withdraw money.
Most financial institutions will let you place alerts on bank accounts, so you’ll know as soon as someone withdraws money from them. If you believe an account is compromised, close it immediately. Let the bank know if you suspect unauthorized access.
Preventing Nursing Home Abuse
That’s a frightening statistic, isn’t it? Fortunately, there are some things we can do to try and prevent elder abuse in nursing home.
It’s virtually impossible to spot abuse if you don’t see your loved one often. If you can’t be there, ask another relative, a friend or a neighbor to visit. Your church may have members who volunteer to visit nursing home patients regularly.
If you can afford it, you might hire a caregiver to visit your loved one every week or even every day. That person can be your eyes and ears.
Reputable nursing homes will welcome your questions about your loved one, so don’t hesitate to ask. Ask about his medications, his daily routine, his visitors and his personal care.
Some basic questions might include:
- What medications does she take, and how often does she take them?
- How often is she bathed?
- How often are her clothes washed?
- Do you approve visitors beforehand or can anyone stop by?
- Do you secure cash and other valuables in a safe?
Thank the staff.
The nursing and administration staff aren’t always appreciated for their time and their support of their patients. It may seem like a small thing, but take a minute or two to thank them.
You might leave a thank you note for the night nurse, a box of homemade cookies for the staff or a birthday card for your loved one’s primary caregiver.
It’s vitally important that you take care of yourself, too. Protecting your loved one from nursing home abuse can take an emotional toll on you. Support groups can be a safe place to share your anxiety and your fears with others who are going through the same thing.
If you suspect your loved one is being abused, consult a seasoned nursing home abuse lawyer. We’ll review your case and provide expert counsel.
You can speak with us for free.
Call 904 LAW-1212 anytime, day or night.