This Residents’ Rights Month, Let’s Be Mindful of Our Role in Elder Protection
October is Residents’ Rights Month for elders living in long-term care facilities across America. The National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care first designated this month as a time to focus on the dignity, respect, and individual value of every senior citizen in care.
Elders enter the care system for a number of reasons, ranging from physical ailments to chronic conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. The complexity involved in their care, combined with sector-wide staffing shortages undoubtedly worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, shapes environments ripe for mistreatment of residents, including abuse and neglect.
Statistics suggest more than 30% of seniors are impacted by some form of abuse, be it psychological, financial, physical or sexual. Equally common, and no less unacceptable, are situations where frail and vulnerable residents are left abandoned in beds or wheelchairs, without proper movement, personal hygiene, medication, or even nutrition.
Not only does it not have to be this way, but according to the law, it shouldn’t be.
The Rights of Seniors in Care
In 1987, Congress passed the Nursing Home Reform Act, which at the time was a sweeping piece of legislation to establish certain standards in the care of seniors, and conditioning facilities’ receipt of Medicaid and Medicare payments on compliance with them.
Seniors – at least in theory, as it often seems – are guaranteed a “bill of rights” by the act. This includes the right to live in a caring and nurturing environment free of abuse, neglect or other mistreatment; the right to privacy; the right not to be restrained, either physically or chemically; and the right to receive personal care accommodating each resident’s physical, emotional, medical and social needs.
Other protections include the ability to exercise self-determination, participate in their own care plans, have access to family and to facility groups, and to be able to complain without the fear of retribution.
None of these rights and protections are ambiguous, negotiable, or subject to a particular facility’s discretion. But abuse and neglect incidents still continue to run rampant.
What We Can Do to Protect Seniors in Care
It is up to each one of us to advocate for the rights of seniors in nursing homes and long-term care facilities.
First, we may have parents, grandparents, or neighbors who are in care themselves, and at the facility-level, ensuring their emotional needs are being met, that they receive the nutrition and medication they need, and have the physical attention they are entitled to are all essential steps. Indirect communication like phone calls and emails are useful tools, but with many facilities in the country now reopen for visitation in some form, physically seeing and connecting with our loved ones should not be taken for granted.
Secondly, it is imperative to report senior abuse and neglect, wherever and whenever we see it, know about it, or even suspect it. This includes seeking the advice of a skilled nursing home abuse attorney or addressing concerns with your local long-term care ombudsman. Even if there is only a feeling or a hunch, act on it.
Lastly, whenever we can, we must push for change at the local, state and federal level to create safer conditions in long-term care that protect both the needs and interests of staff and the seniors they care for. Whether it be writing, emailing, or calling political representatives, or joining forces with seniors’ rights groups in our area, it is our individual and collective duty to push for change.
In some ways, the goal should be for Residents’ Rights Month to become unnecessary. Until then, we must get to work. Society’s most vulnerable members depend on our efforts.