Why Institutional Elder Abuse Is So Common

Getting older is part of life. The oldest among us have lived through extraordinary circumstances and deserve a comfortable retirement. The problem is that for many people, aging also makes it harder to remain independent. Many people over 65 require assistance to continue living healthy and happy lives, making them uniquely vulnerable to abusers. 

There are many forms of elder abuse, including physical, emotional, and financial. All of them are particularly common in residential facilities like nursing homes. This type of institutional harm is often harder for families to spot and more damaging to the victims than other attacks or manipulations. 

If you have older loved ones who live in residential facilities, watching for signs of abuse is one of the best things you can do for them. Below, we explain what elder abuse is, why it is so common in care facilities, and what you can do to protect your loved ones. 

How Is Elder Abuse Defined?

California law defines elder abuse as harm committed against someone 65 or older by someone in a position of trust. This includes:

  • Physical harm, such as hitting or pinching
  • Neglect of basic needs, such as hygiene or regular meals
  • Financial harm, such as theft or fraud
  • Abandonment, including leaving the person alone without notifying other caretakers
  • Isolating the victim from other people
  • Abducting the person without their consent
  • Deprivation by a caregiver of things the victim needs to avoid harm or suffering
  • Behavior that causes physical damage, pain, or mental suffering

In short, it includes any attack or neglect committed against an older person because of their age-related vulnerability.

Of course, it is also possible for adults under 65 to suffer in care facilities. If the victim cannot care for themselves when the harm occurs, it is considered dependent abuse. Otherwise, it could be regarded as assault, medical malpractice, fraud, or another more specific crime, depending on the harm that occurred. Still, the law considers abusing older adults particularly heinous due to their loss of agency with age. 

Frequency of Elder Abuse in Nursing Homes

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), every year, one in six people 60 and older will experience abuse in a communal setting. More chillingly, two in three healthcare staff at residential care facilities like nursing homes report abusing patients in the past year. The problem has only worsened over the COVID-19 pandemic, with one study suggesting rates have increased by as much as 84%. But why is elder abuse so common?

Several factors lead to the abuse of older adults. These include:

  • Lack of agency: Adults who move to residential facilities have frequently lost the ability to be independent. They have typically developed some form of physical or mental disability, such as dementia or a loss of mobility, that prevents them from caring for themselves. As such, they are dependent on their caretakers for their most basic needs and may not have the ability safely respond to the harm.
  • Lack of staffing: The healthcare industry has faced a staffing shortage for years, and the pandemic only accelerated the issue. Nursing homes and other institutions struggle to maintain even skeleton staffing, and the nurses, nursing assistants, and other remaining professionals are frequently overworked to the point of breakdown. As a result, many of these workers lose the ability to empathize with their patients, making abusive behaviors more likely. Furthermore, even the most compassionate care workers may not have the time or ability to provide necessary care to their assigned patients. 
  • Lack of oversight: In homecare settings, older adults are often visited by family, friends, and neighbors who can spot the signs of harm quickly. However, in residential facilities, this oversight isn’t present. Approximately 60% of nursing home residents simply never get visitors. Without regular contact with people outside the facility, there is no way for anyone to notice and stop the victim’s suffering.

How to Protect Family from Institutional Elder Abuse

If you are concerned that an older family member is being abused in a residential facility, the best thing you can do is to visit them regularly. If in-person visits aren’t possible, you may also be able to arrange virtual visits or phone calls. During these visits, you can look for common signs of abuse, such as:

  • Poor hygiene: Care facilities are supposed to help residents maintain their hygiene. If your family member looks messy or clearly hasn’t bathed recently, they may be neglected and face other abusive behavior.
  • Unexplained injuries: Bruises, cuts, broken bones, scars, and other injuries should not be common in a care facility. If you notice these injuries, your loved one may be suffering abuse.
  • Lack of basic medical necessities: In a nursing home, the facility is responsible for ensuring patients have access to essentials like walkers, dentures, hearing aids, glasses, and routine medications. If these are missing, something is wrong. 
  • Personality changes: Not every abusive behavior leaves physical marks. An extrovert suddenly acting withdrawn or stopping activities they love could be a sign of emotional harm. Similarly, a calm person suddenly becoming aggressive or agitated may indicate psychological abuse.

Knowing how to spot elder abuse allows you to step in when your family member is suffering and help them seek justice. You don’t have to manage the process alone, though. You can work with skilled California abuse and neglect attorneys like the team at Fiore Achermann. Our knowledgeable lawyers will help you determine if your older loved one could be suffering from abuse, then identify the best way to protect them. We have helped other families achieve eight-figure jury verdicts for elder abuse, and we can help you too. Learn more by scheduling your consultation today.