As the population in the United States, and around the world, continues to age, with a greater proportion of elderly people than ever before, nursing homes are proliferating as well. And, sadly, cases of nursing home abuse are becoming all too common. Abuse can be willful and even criminal, or it can result from simple negligence. And abuse can be physical or emotional. Monitor your loved one’s situation at the nursing home facility carefully to ensure that he or she is being taken care of appropriately. If you suspect otherwise, however, you have legal recourse to correct the situation.
First, raise your concerns directly with the nursing home administration. It’s possible that there’s a simple answer to your concerns. You may learn that an irresponsible employee has been laid off, or that the food preparation areas are undergoing a renovation. However, if you’re still not satisfied, then you can take further action.
All nursing homes in the United States are regulated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and they are usually regulated by a local state agency as well. These agencies are responsible for conducting regular inspections — at least annually — that are intended to enforce compliance with the regulations. You can report any irregularities or suspicions that you may have, which the agency should address during its next inspection or during a special inspection.
Also, you can hire a nursing home abuse lawyer to investigate your particular case. The state health agency is indeed responsible for ensuring that nursing home management complies with regulations, but state agencies don’t have the resources to follow up on individual cases, and the abuse may continue over the long term. After you’ve filed a complaint and brought the nursing home under some pressure to reform, the nursing home administration may ask you or your loved one to sign documents releasing them from any further responsibility in the matter you originally raised.
If compliance with the complaint requires the nursing home to spend extra money on some improvement, they may try to pass the cost on to you. They may obstruct your efforts to move your loved one to a different facility (by slowing down Medicaid paperwork, for instance), or even to receive outside medical care. And the nursing home will have its own legal counsel.
Hiring a nursing home abuse lawyer does not mean you’ll have to spend thousands of dollars and go to court. Attorneys with specialty in elder care issues will try to negotiate a settlement with the nursing home outside of court. The nursing home wants to avoid a court trial as much as you do — it’s expensive for them as well, and would tarnish their reputation. Clear signs of abuse and neglect are usually settled quickly and easily, out of court. If you’re seeking monetary compensation as well, you may have a tougher fight.
First, act quickly. Statutes of limitations usually weigh in, and the clock starts ticking from the time the injury or incident first occurred. The time period after which you can still file a suit varies depending on type of incident or injury, as well as your (U.S.) state. U.S. federal law may also apply, limiting the time you have to pursue compensation through the court system, as well as the amount of damages that can be awarded.
Elder care lawyers are easy to find, and are trained to handle a range of issues regarding senior citizens’ issues. Talk to a few lawyers before committing; find a lawyer with experience in nursing home abuse cases, and if you anticipate resistance from nursing home management and a possible court case, find a lawyer with court experience, who knows the judges and has been successful in court. Don’t settle for a lawyer whose career has been built around qualifying seniors for Medicaid, or other routine matters.
Also, if your loved one is in a nursing home in another state, be sure to hire a lawyer from that state, not from yours. State laws do vary. In many cases, an expert witness can help bolster a case; ask your prospective lawyer about expert witnesses, whether a physician, therapist, or nutritionist. Taking depositions from expert witnesses can also be expensive, so be sure to establish a budget beforehand! However, a winning malpractice suit can provide sufficient compensation to cover your legal costs. In a worst-case scenario — that you are hiring a nursing home abuse lawyer to file a wrongful death suit — your lawyer should be able to explain the financial ramifications of your case objectively and rationally.
As usual, the best way to find a good elder care lawyer with the experience you need is through personal references; if you know any lawyers with other specialties, either professionally or socially, ask for their advice. The National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA) is a good repository of information, with a useful website; the website has a search page to help you find a lawyer in your area. The website has a good section on elder care law, although this website is sustained by attorneys’ advertisements, and the information may not be foolproof. Nolo, which has been distributing legal advice for decades and specializes in “do-it-yourself” law, is eminently reliable and also has good information on elder care law; you can find them at .