Black Nursing Home Residents Are More Likely to Experience Abuse—Here’s How We Can Protect Them

The decision to help an elderly family member move into a nursing home can be heartbreaking. An increased risk of abuse and neglect compounds that pain.

Female nurse taking care of a senior man in a nursing home

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For most families, making the decision to place a loved one in a nursing home or assisted living facility, is costly and difficult. Finding a facility that is affordable and accommodates the needs of the elderly family member well are essential factors. But at the top of most checklists, is finding a place that is free of negligence and abuse.

Although elderly abuse in nursing homes has always been a problem, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the issue in the last two years. According to Nursing Home Abuse Justice, an advocacy organization dedicated to bringing attention to elderly abuse in nursing homes, nursing home abuse is defined as any harm done to a resident whether intentional or not.

As vulnerable members of our society, it can be difficult for the elderly to advocate and protect themselves from physical, financial, and sexual abuse. When considering the added difficulty of suffering this harm without family or loved ones witnessing it daily, reporting the abuse can be tricky.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Service is a federally run program that can provide ratings for nursing homes in local areas. But a 2021 New York Times investigation found that at least 2,700 dangerous incidents were not factored into the programs rating system, leaving many facilities with higher ratings than they deserve and putting elderly individuals at risk of being placed in an abusive home. Because of underreporting and limited scrutiny for certain facilities, the rate of nursing home abuse and negligence is likely far higher than suspected.

What’s worse, Black residents are at an even higher risk of facing abuse or negligence than other races, and the risk only increases for residents that are also poor. A survey conducted by the University of Pittsburgh found that Black nursing home residents were twice as likely to suffer psychological abuse than residents of other races. The survey also found that they are five times as likely to suffer financial exploitation such as having money stolen or being coerced into signing documents they don’t fully understand.

In addition to physical and financial abuse, Black residents are also more likely to live in facilities that are less clean, which can be deadly, especially during a pandemic.

This data can make the already difficult decision for Black families even more daunting as they grapple with the possibility of an elderly parent or grandparent facing harm at the hands of caregivers. However, there are many warning signs that loved ones can look out for to be vigilant against negligence and abuse, in addition to a number of resources and advocacy groups that exist to combat elderly abuse.

Every state has a nursing home or long-term care ombudsman program which are individuals that handle complaints against nursing home facilities. The National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care provides links for ombudsman programs in each state and to adult protective services for concerned loved ones. 

The Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program of Florida shared, with Kindred, their tips and warning signs for spotting elderly abuse in nursing.

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Be vigilant about physical changes.

Families should be aware of any major physical appearance changes in their loved ones such as rapid weight loss, bruising and broken bones. Although family members may not be able to visit the facility daily, it’s important to visit as often as possible and take note of any major changes in addition to asking the family members questions about their care. Additionally, the ombudsman recommends varying times of visitation in the event that abusive caregivers take notice of patterns.

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Keep track of preventable problems.

Family members should take note of hygiene and cleanliness issues such as bedsores, soiled clothes, and bedding. These could be signs of neglect as caregivers fail to properly clean the resident or take them to a doctor to be seen for illnesses. The ombudsman note that there are certain illnesses that are unavoidable but preventable conditions should be taken as a warning sign. Some victims may be afraid or unable to speak up for themselves, so familiarizing yourself with the nurses and staff and having a clear line of communication about expectations and treatment is important.

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Damage to property is a red flag.

Evaluate any damage to property such as eyeglasses, hearing aids, and walkers or misplaced property such as money, clothing, or sentimental items. Being cognizant of the condition of your loved one’s personal belongings can be helpful in determining if they are being taken advantage of.

The ombudsman of Florida also recommends taking note of changes in banking and spending patterns as they could be signs of financial exploitation. 

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Assess your relative's mood.

The ombudsman of Florida wants loved ones to be aware of mental health changes that may take place in an older family member. If a loved one seems depressed, confused and withdrawn, or isolated from family, it may be a clear sign of abuse or neglect. 

While there are many other warning signs, advocacy groups like Nursing Home Abuse Justice and the Nursing Home Abuse Center lay out in greater detail what family members should be looking out for and provide free legal options for family members as well that want to work with lawyers and case managers.

Elderly abuse at the hands of caregivers is an unfortunate occurrence in the nation. But family members don’t have to live in fear of going into the process of putting a loved one into a nursing home unequipped. By using the resources and warning signs mentioned, families can mitigate the risk of harm to their loved ones.

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