Ask the Experts

Elderly Edifice

My parents are putting my grandmother into a nursing home. I’m worried about this decision, as many of the nursing students I know have mixed feelings about elderly care facilities. Are they safe?

While there have been tragic incidents of neglect and abuse in nursing homes, the good news is that the short answer to your question is yes. These incidents are statistically uncommon, and the facts back nursing homes as a good option for the elderly.

Much of what we know about elder abuse we owe to the organizations that track and combat it. Elder abuse is an issue that is likely to take on increasing importance as our society ages: the percentage of Americans over the age of 60 is climbing, and is expected to top 20 percent by 2050, according to the National Center of Elder Abuse.

But not all elder abuse happens in nursing homes, and very few nursing homes are guilty of abuse. Per the NCEA, nursing home abuse first became a national issue in the 1970s, and since then, we have gotten much better at identifying and eradicating it – though more research is still needed.

Nursing homes, rehab centers, and retirement communities now recognize the threat of elder abuse. Oversight programs and safeguards are now the norm and priorities at these institutions have changed in others ways, too. Modern facilities approach healthy senior living in holistic ways that would have been rare thirty years ago. The experts at Riddle Village Retirement Community describe their goal as making sure seniors are “ready to enjoy their lives.” Happiness – not just health – has become a priority in the business.

This does not necessarily mean that nursing homes are entirely healthy places. Some studies have suggested that the life expectancy of people in nursing homes is shorter than that of their independent peers. These studies control for age and, as much as possible, for health, but it is worth remembering that it is difficult to precisely measure all the factors at play in an older population making end-of-life decisions. And a shorter life expectancy does not necessarily translate to proof of abuse.

Still, these studies suggest we should look at alternatives to nursing homes and retirement communities – so let us do so. Some seniors choose to live at home and with family members instead. In some cases, it is possible to create a safe environment for the elderly at home. However, it often involves retrofitting the home with fixtures and additions that protect residents from slip-and-falls and other dangers. Take, for example, walk-in tubs, which are specially designed to minimize the dangers of bathing for seniors.

But living at home does not necessarily mean that loved ones are protected from abuse. In fact, the Nursing Home Abuse Center reports that about 90% of elder abuse is committed by relatives of the abused senior. And while seniors do not have to live at home or with their relatives to make intra-family abuse possible, it is clear that the statistics do not support avoiding nursing homes in order to avoid elder abuse.

To be clear, elder abuse is a problem that the nation continues to grapple with. The number of incidents reported is in the hundreds of thousands, and statistics suggest that elder abuse is massively under-reported – though it is difficult to say by how much. Watchdog agencies, government policies, and protections put in place by retirement homes and other institutions are attempting to combat the problem. But the statistics do not suggest that nursing homes are disproportionately responsible for abuse – it is family members who hold that dubious distinction.

“I’m in no hurry to get old. But when I do, I’ll be out to enjoy every last minute. I see myself at 90 in some nursing home, waving my walking stick about as I jive to Gene Vincent records.” — Imelda May

Suzanne Hite is a former publications editor serving the technology services sector.