Nursing Homes Must Be Safe

In January, police arrested a nurse on suspicion of sexual assault of an incapacitated nursing home patient in Phoenix. In May, a jury awarded $7.5 million to a family of a disabled elderly woman who was sexually assaulted by another patient at a Pennsylvania nursing home. In Florida, a mother is currently suing her daughter’s former care facility, alleging her profoundly disabled daughter, age 23, was raped, impregnated and injured while in the facility. With baby boomers retiring at record rates, our society needs a new model for operating, managing, and investigating nursing homes.

We want to know that all our loved ones are well-cared for and safe. But that has not been the case for some of our most vulnerable family members—the elderly and the disabled, especially those in nursing facilities. There is little research available on the subject of elder sexual abuse and those who perpetrate the abuse. What studies do exist are complicated by the mere fact that many victims of elder sexual abuse cannot communicate well enough to identify what happened or who their perpetrator was. As in the Phoenix case, perpetrators of disabled and elder abuse can tragically be those entrusted with caring for their victims.

During Hurricane Katrina in 2005, some 200 people died in nursing homes and hospitals. Some attorneys alleged that waiting until it was too late to evacuate constituted elder adult abuse, since most of the nursing home residents were physically or mentally not able to leave under their own power. The disaster highlighted the failure of American nursing care facilities to address the needs of this population, but unfortunately, little changed. Five years later, when Hurricane Sandy struck New York City in 2012, 4,000 people had to be rescued from nursing homes that flooded or lost power. Some families could not locate their loved ones for weeks.
Those events prompted a 2016 federal mandate for heightened standards for providers participating in Medicare or Medicaid. Although Federal oversight of skilled nursing facilities is a positive move, it isn’t enough. At a time when Americans are more divided than ever over concerns about healthcare and aging, many are wondering what can be done to address the systemic problems that exist nationwide.

Unfortunately, searching to see if a nursing home is following the rules is a cumbersome procedure. There is no central place where consumers can find information. A comprehensive online rating system, such as the ones that exist for products, home services, or restaurants would be extremely useful. Adults in compromised health condition do have rights, and protecting them is possible. Licensed care facilities are legally accountable under the theory that vulnerable adults are legally entitled to live (and die) with dignity. Typical state jurisdiction claims are not limited to sexual abuse, but can include malnutrition, failure to prevent bedsores, failure to properly staff the facility, failure to prevent falls, to name a few. State health departments are charged with regularly evaluating nursing homes, and facilities should make these evaluations available to residents and their family members upon request. The group Leading Age maintains a site which explains regulations, patient rights, and lists a number of resources. Medicare also has an evaluation system which is accessible online at Medicare’s online Nursing Home Compare tool. Finally, a search can be made in court systems to determine whether any lawsuit have been filed against skilled nursing companies.

To be sure, no one wants to place a loved one into a nursing home, but sometimes families are left with no choice due to a combination of medical conditions and resources. Most states have enacted Elder Law Statues to protect vulnerable adults. Americans need to know about these laws which give vulnerable heightened adults legal protections. Recent multi-million dollar verdicts have proven that juries will award substantial damages for the death of a vulnerable adult. Interviewed later, jurors suggest that the loss of dignity is the factor that both appalls and motivates these high verdicts.

That is fair and just motivation. The manner in which a society treats its most vulnerable speaks volumes about that culture. America needs information about care facilities, not just office products, food, and plumbing. A civilized nation treats its vulnerable adults with respect, care and compassion. Those responsible for our elderly and disabled Americans should be, and can be, held accountable under the law.