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It is frightening to think about the vulnerability of seniors in nursing homes. Stories of nursing home abuse and nursing home neglect show up with alarming frequency in the news and some sources claim that these incidents are increasing as funding decreases across the healthcare system, leading to the staffing problems that create situations for abuse and neglect. Many of the instances of abuse go unreported to authorities because some victims lack the means or ability to make a complaint, have no one to report on their behalf, or because of fear reprisals or even worse treatment by the staff responsible for nearly all of their day-to-day care.

The federal government’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) inspects the homes that are subsidized by Medicare and Medicaid. This inspection program, run at the state level through health or human services departments, includes interviews with residents, their families and staff. The Medicare web page also provides a search function which allows comparisons of care at facilities in a specific state and county. A sample search shows that the results include lists of any violations and citations against certain homes. It is important that any facility or service be fully researched before people entrust themselves or their loved ones to its care. Moreover, it is important that people make regular visits to their senior friends and relatives, making sure to meet all persons responsible for administering care and observing their loved ones for signs of ill-health, depression, poor hygiene, dangerous surroundings, etc.

Yet, there are still many seniors who lack the oversight of friends and relatives and it is these helpless people for whom our society as a whole must secure humane and competent care. Federal guidelines and state inspections must be frequent and rigorous. All suspected cases of abuse or neglect must be followed up by inspectors and law enforcement agencies. Documented or prosecuted cases of abuse or neglect need to be officially reported and made part of the public record of a facility or service.

Prevention is the most important element. The National Center on Elder Abuse cites staff issues as crucial to ensuring proper care and they offer suggestions for preventing problems. All potential staff must have background checks and their prior employers should always be contacted and interviewed–several stories of abuse reveal that the perpetrators had moved from job to job; jobs from which they were dismissed for misconduct. Staff must receive training before starting active roles; moreover, training and support needs to continue throughout their tenures. Staff levels need to be as high as possible so that the ratio of caregivers to patients remains low. Salaries should reflect a living wage to lower turnover and increase job satisfaction.

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