More and more Americans are living in nursing homes, assisted living facilities and other institutions. These facilities are designed to help the elderly, and they can be life-savers for adults who can no longer fully care for themselves, and whose families are not able to care for them at home.
Unfortunately, the specialization of nursing homes and similar facilities can also have the effect of isolating the elderly from the broader community. This isolation can make it harder for outsiders to detect signs of abuse and neglect.
There is a lack of solid statistical analysis about nursing home neglect and abuse. Professionals must report cases, and state and federal governments keep records, but many observers believe the incidents are badly underreported. In fact, researchers say there are very few comprehensive studies of the problem.
One thing researchers do agree on is that a major risk factor for abuse of all types is social isolation. Researchers have long noted that a strong social network tends to prevent abuse. When people see each other frequently, they can quickly spot signs of abuse or neglect. The friends, family members, neighbors and others in the network will quickly take action to stop the abuse if they see it. By the same token, potential abusers will be less likely to hurt people if they suspect the abuse will be quickly spotted and that they will face consequences.
All this is more difficult to achieve among nursing home residents. These are vulnerable people, and their social networks are made up largely of other vulnerable people. Abuse and neglect can easily go unnoticed and unreported.
Sadly, many cases of abuse are not spotted by family members until after they have been going on for a long time. This is one reason it is important for family members to hold the facilities responsible when they have mistreated the elderly. A family may be too late to stop the abuse against their loved one, but by holding the facility liable for the injuries they have caused, the family can prompt all nursing homes to take better care of their residents.