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What are signs of nursing home abuse or neglect?

Nursing home abuse is one of the types of abuse that most people don't expect. After all, the people working in a nursing home knew that they'd be working with the elderly and should have been prepared for the hard work it entails.

Sadly, it's quite common. Worldwide, approximately 1 in 6 older people experience abuse in some form, according to research supported by the World Health Organization. Many nursing homes are understaffed and ill-prepared to look after the elderly. This can lead to serious concerns as accidents and injuries begin to add up.

What are some common signs of neglect in nursing homes?

If there are not enough staff members or there is a particularly negligent staff member, then you may notice signs such as:

  • The smell of urine or feces
  • Unclean environments around patients
  • Patients who have poor hygiene
  • Patients who have fallen
  • Seeing few nurses
  • Inadequate medical care
  • Evasive answers from staff
  • Lack of mobility activities

You may also find that there are many residents who "go missing" as they're taken to hospitals to treat injuries from regular neglect.

What are some signs of physical abuse in nursing homes?

Abuse is a little more difficult to notice in some cases. However, you can keep an eye out for a few signs of abuse such as:

  • Nurses or aids who are rough with patients
  • Yelling or screaming at patients
  • The overuse of medications
  • Bruises on patients
  • Withdrawn behaviors from patients who are normally not quiet or reserved

Signs of emotional and verbal abuse

Typically, there are common signs of physical abuse and neglect, including bedsores, bruises, malnutrition and other physical indicators. Emotional abuse, on the other hand, is a much tougher to spot. But there are specific signs of this kind of abuse that should not be ignored. 

It is important to understand what constitutes emotional abuse. For stubborn patients, the nursing staff may have to be stern at times in order to get them to take medicine or eat. This is not, on its own, abuse. But humiliating, threatening or intimidating them is, as is ignoring or isolating them. The nurses' first and foremost responsibility is the wellbeing of their patients, and using these kinds of tactics hinders this goal.

If your loved one is in an elder care home, here are some signs to be on the lookout for in your loved one:

  • Lower self-esteem than they once did
  • Hopelessness
  • Fear toward their nurses
  • Avoiding eye contact
  • Refusal to elaborate on their experiences in the home
  • General feelings of being threatened
  • Mood swings
  • Changes in sleeping and eating patterns
  • Feelings of isolation
  • Uncharacteristic behaviors, such as rocking, thumbsucking and other infantile activity

Questions to ask your loved one

Here are some important questions to ask your loved one when trying to spot nursing home abuse so you can keep your loved one safe.

  • Are you being treated respectfully? This might seem like too simple of a question to ask but it is an important one. If your loved one isn't feeling respected by the staff, it is quite possible that he or she is facing some form of abuse, either physical or emotional.
  • Are you taking part in activities? If your loved one is not getting out of their room for activities or to go to the cafeteria, especially if they cannot move themselves, they might be facing abuse. Residents should not be left to sit alone in their rooms for hours on end.
  • Are nurses answering your calls? When your loved one hits the nurse button or uses the phone to call the nurse's station, are they getting an answer? If the answer is not immediate, are they getting an answer at all? Strong communication between the nurses and your loved one is vital to their health.

Always trust your gut instinct

You can't put your finger on it, but things don't feel right. Trust your gut. You may start picking up on things subconsciously. You may even start seeing some of the signs listed above without realizing it. A bad feeling typically happens for a reason, and it's worth finding out what that reason is. 

What to do if you suspect nursing home abuse

Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Is there immediate danger?
    If there is, you may need to call 911 and get help quickly. If the abuse presents an unsafe or unhealthy situation, but not an immediate and critical danger, the emergency call may be unnecessary even if other action is required.
  2. Does the person have issues with memory loss or confusion?
    If so, he or she may not be able to tell you exactly what's going on. Trust your gut. Even if the person says nothing has happened, remember that an incident may simply have been forgotten.
  3. Does the person have any other known medical problems?
    If so, abuse can become even more problematic. The issues could be compounded and lead to serious side effects or injuries. With some medical issues, neglect also creates a significantly hazardous situation, as constant care and vigilance on the part of the staff are required.
  4. Have you spotted suspicious behavior?
    This could include instances of yelling, sharp exchanges between staff and residents, and other things that show the relationship is not healthy. Though perhaps not proof on its own, this can back up your suspicions that something isn't right.

The best way to identify if neglect or abuse is a problem in a nursing home is to make sure you're visiting the nursing home often and observing your surroundings. Even if you're not able to notice the signs right away, there is a chance that you'll notice them soon enough to help protect those in the facility. When you do, you should notify nursing home officials and contact an attorney as soon as possible.

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