Nursing Home Abuse and Neglect: Basics

Start here to understand how neglect and abuse are defined, and who might be liable for harm to a resident.

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As disturbing as it is to imagine, a very small segment of the elderly population is abused, neglected, or otherwise victimized every day across our country. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 500,000 older adults over the age of 60 are abused or neglected each year. Unfortunately, these numbers may reflect only a small portion of the real problem, since so many cases of abuse and neglect go unreported each year.

The CDC identifies six types of maltreatment that occur among people age sixty and older. These include:

  • physical abuse
  • sexual abuse
  • emotional abuse
  • neglect
  • financial abuse, and
  • abandonment.

What is Elder Abuse?

There is general agreement among health and legal professionals as to the definition of “physical abuse.” The Department of Health and Human Services Administration on Aging defines abuse as “the willful infliction of injury, unreasonable confinement, intimidation or cruel punishment with resulting physical harm, pain, or mental anguish or deprivation by a person, including a caregiver, of goods or services that are necessary to avoid physical harm, mental anguish, or mental illness.”

Slapping, pushing, and hitting all constitute physical abuse. The improper use of physical or medicinal restraints also falls into the category of physical abuse. One form of abuse that is becoming more prevalent in nursing homes is sexual abuse. This can take many forms, from rape to requiring a resident to unnecessarily disrobe.

What is Elder Neglect?

Defining “neglect” has been much more difficult, primarily because of the numerous forms that neglect can take, and how much the facts vary from one situation to the next. Generally speaking, though, neglect is defined as any failure by a caregiver -- whether it is hired staff or even a family member -- to fulfill the obligations related to the older person’s care.

Because an elderly person’s needs are so wide-ranging, the forms of neglect can be just as varied. Typically they include any denial of needs related to shelter, food, clothing, hygiene and medical care.

Who is Legally Liable for Abuse and Neglect?

When abuse or neglect occurs in the nursing home setting, the facility can be held liable if any of the following played a part in causing harm to a resident or patient:

  • negligent hiring
  • understaffing
  • inadequate training
  • breach of statutory or regulatory obligations, and
  • medication errors.

Remember that the facility is also "vicariously liable" for the acts of its employees, including most actions taken in the course and scope of the worker's job responsibilities.

As part of a resident’s care, nursing homes often hire contractors or otherwise outsource various tasks to third parties. Those third parties may also be liable for abuse or neglect of a resident. For example, if another resident -- or a guest visiting the nursing home -- injures a resident, the private security firm providing security to the nursing home may be liable for negligence.

What Should I Do If I Suspect Elder Abuse Or Neglect?

If you are a victim, or if you suspect that someone you know is a victim of elder abuse or neglect, you should immediately call the police or Adult Protective Services. You do not need to prove abuse in order to make a report.

Most states have a toll-free hotline number that you can call to relay your concerns. To find your state’s number, go to the National Center on Elder Abuse website and click on “Where to Report Abuse.”

If you are concerned about a nursing home or assisted living facility resident, your state’s long-term care ombudsman can also serve as a resource. To find your local ombudsman’s office, call the U.S. Administration on Aging at 800.677.1116 or go to www.eldercare.gov.

Here are some more national resources that may provide assistance:

  • National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse. The National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse (NCPEA) is an association of researchers, practitioners, educators, and advocates dedicated to protecting the safety, security, and dignity of America's most vulnerable citizens. The NCPEA's mission is to prevent abuse, neglect, and exploitation of older persons and adults with disabilities.

You may also want to contact an experienced Nursing Home Abuse Lawyer to discuss your situation and explore your legal options.

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