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Sources of Elder Abuse in Nursing Homes

When we picture incidents of abuse at elder care facilities, we usually imagine wrongdoing committed by negligent or malicious staff, no matter how proportionally few they might be. Yet a newly-released study carried out by Cornell University on elder abuse in nursing homes contains some surprising and disturbing conclusions about where most abuse actually comes from: fellow residents of the care facility.

With over 2,000 New York state senior citizens in nursing homes interviewed through the course of the study, researchers found that other patients are most likely to represent the greatest danger to the health and well-being of an elder. By interviewing the residents of nursing homes and their relatives, Cornell professor of gerontology Dr. Karl Pillemer approached the problem of elder abuse from a new angle, one that had previously received little attention.

The study's findings show the challenges ahead in creating and maintaining a safer environment for patients. According to collated data, one in five nursing home residents reported at least one incident of abuse over a month's period. And the primary offenders were not nursing home staff, but fellow patients in the facility. Incidents included the following types of abusive behavior:

  • Cursing, screaming, or yelling at another person (16%)
  • Hitting, kicking or biting (5.7%)
  • Sexual misconduct (1.3%)
  • Unwelcome entry into patient's room or going through patient's possessions (10.5%)

Pillemer and his colleagues were also able to render a general profile of a potential wrongdoer. As a fellow patient at the nursing home, the abuser tends to be younger, more mobile and subject to mood swings and mental/emotional disorders.

Another troubling aspect emerging from the research seems to be the staff's general unawareness of many of these incidents of abuse or even its occurrence as a phenomenon. Much of this is due to overcrowding, which translates to overburdened employees who don't have the time to regulate every incident of misconduct. Yet care facilities must work to address this challenge immediately, as a future tragedy could very well result from institutional negligence.

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