One in five nursing home residents victim of elder abuse

Nursing home residents may be most at risk from elder abuse by their fellow residents.

At least one in five nursing home residents may be abused by their roommates or other residents, according to a new study published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.

"Much (but not all) of interpersonal aggression in nursing homes stems from the fact that people, many of whom have dementia and other neurodegenerative illnesses, are being thrust into communal living environments for the first time in decades, if ever," says lead study author Mark S. Lachs, MD, MPH, professor at the Weill Cornell Medical College at Cornell University to Reuters Health. "While memory loss and other cognitive problems are cardinal features of dementia, the behavior problems that accompany dementia are notorious triggers for nursing home placement. When many such people are asked to share common spaces or become roommates, these situations can occur."

Lachs and his colleagues studied the prevalence of resident-to-resident elder mistreatment among 2,011 residents at five urban and five suburban New York state nursing homes between 2009 and 2013. They found 407 residents, or 20 percent, had been involved in at least once occurrence of abuse during the one-month observation period:

  • Verbal – 9.1 percent,
  • Other (such as invasion of privacy or menacing gestures) – 5.3 percent
  • Physical – 5.2 percent and
  • Sexual – 0.6 percent.

These findings are based only on reported cases, suggesting actual incidence of abuse may be higher.

Researchers included any case of negative, aggressive, or unwelcome interaction between residents that could cause distress as potential resident-to-resident abuse. They identified abuse through resident interviews, staff interviews, shift coupons, observation, chart review and accident or interview reports. They also interviewed family members or legal guardians of some residents with mental health issues or language barriers that might make consent and participation difficult.

Elder abuse is a common, costly and potentially fatal health issue affecting an estimate 10 percent of the 64.9 million community-dwelling older adults. The White House, U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, U.S. Department of Justice, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Institute of Medicine and Administration for Community Living have all called for elder abuse to be named an urgent public health issue. 

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