The Joyner law firm, where attorneys fight to protect and preserve legal rights of the elderly, warns that those who become physically frail in old age are at risk of bullying or abusive treatment. They may not see or hear as well or think as clearly as they once could, and these weaknesses may allow unscrupulous predators to take unfair advantage of them. Mental or physical ailments may make them unwillingly dependent and demanding on caregivers. Many elderly suffer harmful abuse daily where they live, often by those responsible for their care in long-term, residential nursing homes.

Neglect, abandonment, and failure to fulfill caregiving obligations amount to more than half of all reported cases of elder abuse, which can be negligent or intentional. Signs of elder abuse may appear at first to be dementia or frailty. Guilty caregivers sometimes explain them as such.

Domestic Abuse

Both the general demands of caregiving and the specific needs of the elderly can create situations in which abuse is likely to occur. Some nonprofessional caregivers, typically relatives and friends, find caring for their elders satisfying and rewarding, but the demanding responsibilities can be severely stressful and make caregivers feel fatigued, burned out, impatient, and unable to control their frustration, restrain their anger, and avoid abuse against elders for whose care they are ironically responsible.

Among uncompensated, private home caregivers, significant risk factors for elder abuse are

  • Lack of resilience and difficulty in coping with stress,
  • Depression, a condition apparently common among caregivers,
  • Lack of help or support from other potential caregivers, and
  • A view of elder care as a thankless burden.

In many cases, elder abuse is unintentional. Caregivers stressed beyond their tolerance may not intend deliberately to quarrel with elders in their care or ignore their needs. To prevent themselves from becoming abusive, they should have help so they can take restful breaks and should treatment for depression, which can predispose them to perpetrate elder abuse.

Nursing Home Abuse

If there is reason to suspect that a nursing home has abused or neglected an elderly resident, there are actions to take:

  • Verify the evidence. First make sure what the elder says is accurate. If possible, check with other residents who seem to be rational and coherent. Collect medical records or take photos of recent injuries.
  • Consider removing the elder to another facility. If there is cause for concern about the elder’s safety, find another nursing home as soon as possible.
  • Make a report. Inform the police or district attorney. Some states require reports of evident elder abuse. If the district attorney determines that the evidence indicates criminal misconduct, the state charges the nursing home accordingly.
  • File a complaint. Inform the state’s department of social services, adult protective services, or elder protective services so the appropriate regulatory agency can investigate.
  • Consider retaining an attorney. An attorney skilled and experienced in nursing home law, elder abuse, personal injury, or consumer fraud should be consulted for at least an initial case evaluation of the prospects of a civil action for damages. In certain situations, it is possible to join with other claimants for damages in class action lawsuits.

Legal Claims in Nursing Home Abuse Cases

Elders and their relatives may bring against nursing homes claims alleging physical, sexual, or verbal abuse, false imprisonment, and fraudulent financial abuse. To qualify under state law as elder abuse, the victim must be of a certain age, usually at least 65.

The federal Nursing Home Reform Act of 1987, United States Code Title 42 Section 1395i–3, requires all nursing homes receiving Medicare or Medicaid funds to maintain safe facilities for their residents. Enforcement of this law, which the Government Accountability Office has reported to be weak, rests with federal and state government agencies. There is no provision for any private civil cause of action.