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    Warning Signs of Nursing Home Abuse and What You Can Do

    The mistreatment of adults age 65 and older is a real problem with an estimated number of
    1 to 2 million reported cases of neglect, mistreatment, and elder exploitation in the United States alone.
    Mistreatment is defined as either the intentional action of a trusted person or caregiver resulting in harm or risk of damage to an elderly person, or the act of omission, which is the same thing as neglect. This abuse may occur in either a home setting or in institutions, such as assisted living facilities and nursing homes.

    While very little is known about how elderly people are being abused, the statistics include those who have been physically, financially, or emotionally harmed. Elderly women are abused at a higher frequency than men, and those over 80 are at greater risk of abuse than those between 65 and 80 years of age.

    Nursing homes are obligated to report all incidents of patient abuse, neglect, or injury to state authorities.  However, statistics from the National Center on Elder Abuse suggest that only 20 percent of all cases are reported.

    Proving abuse or neglect in these situations can be extremely difficult because those receiving special care are often among the most vulnerable and may be mentally or physically unable to speak up for themselves. In some instances, an elder may not have relatives or friends who can check in on them to ensure they are getting proper care.

    In Virginia, nursing facilities are required to obtain a license to operate, and all nursing facilities are inspected every 2 years under state licensure to confirm they meet specific safety guidelines.

    While nursing homes are often cited for relatively minor infractions like failing to post staffing information, various nursing homes across Virginia have been cited in the past several years for more serious violations, including abuse and neglect.

    Warning Signs of Elder Abuse

    Unfortunately, signs of elder abuse are frequently not taken seriously and may be explained away by a caregiver as dementia or normal “signs of aging.”  While this may be true in some cases, the best way to protect a loved is to be alert to any of the following warning signs:

    • Bruises, pressure marks, broken bones, abrasions, or burns
    • Broken eyeglasses or frames
    • Withdrawal from normal activities and unusual depression
    • Bedsores, poor hygiene, and unusual weight loss
    • Behavior that mimics dementia, such as confusion and mumbling to oneself
    • Unused prescriptions or evidence of overmedication
    • Missing items or cash
    • Inadequate responses from caregiver to questions about care
    • Desertion of an elder in a public place

    What You Can Do

    If you suspect someone is being abused or neglected, report your concern to someone in authority, such as the elder’s primary health care doctor, social worker, or patient advocate.  Of course, if the elder is seriously injured as a result of the suspected abuse or neglect, contact 911 immediately. You should also file a complaint with the appropriate state agency.  To find your specific state resource, you can contact the Elder Locator at 1-800-677-1116 during weekdays or click here to see a list of Virginia eldercare resources.

    In the event that the suspected abuse or neglect continues, it is best to keep written records of each incident with the names of the parties involved, get witness statements whenever possible, and photograph any injuries.  These will prove valuable should you decide to file a lawsuit.

    After reporting suspected abuse or neglect in a nursing home, it is often a good idea to move the elder to a different facility.  Besides providing a safer environment, this adds credence to any lawsuit.

    To determine whether to pursue legal action against a nursing home or other caregiver or institution, talk to an attorney who has handled similar cases to evaluate your claim and discuss your options.  Most attorneys offer free consultations.

    Sometimes an elder may receive poor care that does not resolve in serious injury or death.  Conversely, injury or death may occur without abuse or neglect.  If there is insufficient evidence of damages, abuse, or neglect, your attorney may advise you to drop the matter, as litigation can be time consuming and costly.

    If you have a viable claim, your options to resolve the case may include settlement, mediation, or arbitration, all of which are generally faster and less expensive than a trial.  Many victims of nursing home abuse and neglect and their families settle their claims out of court.  A settlement is where the plaintiff agrees to a set amount of money in return for dismissing the case.  The benefits of a settlement can include reduced stress and the ability to maintain personal privacy.  Mediation is where a neutral party, frequently a retired judge, helps the parties reach a settlement.  An arbitration is similar to a trial but is generally more informal; a neutral party decides the case instead of a jury.  In contrast, a lawsuit that goes to trial is decided by a jury in front of a judge.

    If the case goes to trial, a final resolution can take several years.  In some cases, nursing homes that are found to be negligent for mistreating residents can be liable for punitive damages in addition to the actual damages suffered by the patient.  Most juries are generally sympathetic to victims of elder abuse and neglect, and Virginia has seen some sizeable awards against nursing homes.