As wrongful death lawyers, we know that when a beloved family member is no longer able to care for himself or herself independently, a decision must be made about the best arrangement for that person’s care. The whole purpose of placing a parent or loved one into a nursing home or long-term care facility in California is to ensure that the parent or loved one is properly and well-cared for and will be kept protected and safe. When you select a nursing home facility for a loved one, you place trust in that facility and its staff. Usually, nursing home residents are properly cared for and protected. Occasionally, however, they are not.
In California law, “elder abuse” is a very broadly defined term. It can happen in many different ways, but elder abuse must never be tolerated or excused. Depending on the specifics of the case, justice for the elderly may be pursued through the civil and/or criminal court system. You might be wondering, what is elder abuse? What warning signs should a family member or a concerned friend look for? And what can be done if misuse is happening?
Elder abuse is any intentional or negligent action– or failure to act – that results in harm, injury, or the immediate risk of harm or injury to an older person, whether that harm or injury is physical, psychological, or financial. Elder abuse may include:
- Physical abuse: use of force that causes intimidation or injury
- Emotional abuse: verbal attacks, rejection, isolation, or humiliation
- Sexual abuse: sexual contact that is forced, tricked, threatened, or coerced
- Exploitation: theft, fraud, or deception used to gain control over an older person’s money or property. Financial exploitation may go undiscovered sometimes for years.
- Neglect or abandonment: a caregiver’s failure or refusal to provide for a vulnerable elderly person’s safety or that person’s physical and/or emotional needs.
If you have a loved one now living in a nursing home, be certain that the facility is adequately staffed. Across the country, nursing homes and their residents suffer from a shortage of qualified personnel that severely impacts the quality of care to disabled and elderly residents. Many nursing homes simply do not hire the staff that they need. Federal guidelines are inexplicit and merely require facilities to hire “sufficient” staff.
HOW CAN YOU KNOW IF A CAREGIVER IS ABUSIVE?
Abusers of the elderly are rarely easy to identify. Elderly victims may be unable to report abuse, or they may be isolated, afraid, or ashamed to tell anyone about it. Elder misuse usually happens in the victim’s own home, in a caregiver’s home, or in a nursing home or other long-term healthcare facility. Often, the perpetrator of elder misuse may be an adult family member or even a spouse. Other offenders may include “new friends” who intentionally seek out and prey on older adults, as well as service providers in positions of trust. There is no typical profile of an abuser of the elderly, and frighteningly, it could be anyone.
In long-term care facilities such as nursing homes and assisted living residences, those guilty of misuse are usually the overworked, underpaid, insufficiently-trained employees of the facility. Although most long-term care facilities are professionally staffed and operated, it’s important for family members to stay alert to the possible signs of elder abuse even in the highest-ranked facilities.
WHAT SHOULD YOU LOOK FOR?
Elder abuse may be difficult to identify because some victims may not understand that they are being abused. Those suffering from Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and dementia are especially at risk for nursing home abuse. The potential risk factors for elder misuse in nursing homes and assisted living facilities also include negligent hiring practices, failing to conduct background checks, understaffing, and inadequate training. Elder abuse can take many forms. Here are some signs that family members or concerned friends should look for:
- Slap marks, burns, or blisters. Explanations that don’t fit the circumstances should be treated suspiciously.
- Withdrawal, depression, and unexplained mood shifts may be signs of emotional misuse or neglect.
- A sudden change in finances, abruptly changing beneficiaries, wills, or trusts, unusual bank withdrawals, large loans, and any missing cash or jewelry are all signs of financial exploitation.
- Untreated bedsores, bruises, cuts, a lack of dental care, uncleaned clothing, poor hygiene, overgrown hair and nails, and abrupt weight loss are almost always signs of neglect.
Trust your instincts. Do not be intimidated by nursing home personnel, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Victims of elder misuse may be the victims of more than one type of abuse, and almost any elderly person can be at risk for abuse. It’s important to understand that the victims of elder abuse should never be considered responsible and that the perpetrators of misuse are the persons responsible for it. And while almost any elderly person can be at risk, some are clearly more at risk than others. Factors that may increase an elderly person’s vulnerability to abuse include:
- social isolation, loneliness, and the lack of any social support network
- a mental impairment or disability that may increase an elderly person’s dependence on the abuser
- an abuser’s own personal issues such as anger, drug and/or alcohol abuse, or an emotional or financial dependency on the misuse victim
ARE SPECIFIC LAWS IN PLACE AGAINST ELDER ABUSE?
While no federal law specifically protects elderly persons from abuse, every state has laws that specifically address elder abuse, exploitation, and neglect. Those laws vary from state to state.
State laws that already address battery, assault, theft, rape, fraud, and domestic violence may also apply in elder abuse situations, and when a victim of these crimes is elderly, a judge typically takes that into account when determining a sentence.
The state of California assumes the legal authority to investigate the abuse, neglect, or exploitation of an elderly or disabled person and to provide protective services immediately to that person upon confirmation of misuse. When nursing home misuse and neglect is reported, a criminal investigation can be started, adult protective services can become involved, and a lawsuit can be filed with the help of a California personal injury lawyer.
HOW CAN SOMEONE STOP ELDER ABUSE?
A lawsuit provides immediate help and relief to the victim of elder abuse and prevents further harm. Reporting nursing home abuse is the first step in seeking justice. Of course, every elder abuse case is unique, so families that suspect abuse will need the advice of a California personal injury attorney. No one should ever hesitate to report elder abuse. Justice is available to the victims of misuse, but only if a friend or family member makes the initial report.