Imagine being attacked by creatures with no way of escaping. The feeling of lying helpless as thousands of tiny insects attack your body, bite after bite. This nightmare became a horrific reality for one 84-year-old nursing home patient in East Alabama. According to reports, the patient was left unattended for over 11 hours, during which time she suffered over 100 painful ant bites. The victim, who was bedridden, was unable to move on her own or call for help, and she required constant care from nursing home staff. This incident led to an investigation by the Alabama Office of the Attorney General as well as three employees being criminally charged with elder abuse.
One nurse and two nursing assistants were responsible for caring for the patient on the night of the attack. All three were licensed to practice in Alabama and employed by Cherokee County Health and Rehabilitation Center, the nursing home where this occurred. A status chart for the patient showed that all three staff members had entered the patient’s room multiple times throughout the night, but surveillance footage revealed that none of the three ever actually entered the room for over 11 hours.
Following the investigation, the three employees were fired from the facility and charged with second degree elder abuse/neglect. Further, Cindy Cline, an Administrator for Cherokee County Health and Rehabilitation Center, confirmed that the incident was reported to the state and the board of nursing immediately.
Though Cherokee Health acted in compliance and reported this incident of abuse immediately, numerous other accounts of abuse go undetected and unreported. Approximately 1 out of 10 people aged 60 or older have experienced abuse while only 1 out of every 14 cases of abuse are ever reported to authorities. While nursing homes have a duty to immediately report abuse to authorities, they also are responsible for taking steps to prevent it from happening in the first place. These steps include training nurses and staff, enforcing the nursing home’s policies and procedures, and ensuring the building meets applicable Code requirements.
To combat unreported nursing home misconduct, lawmakers in Tennessee have proposed legislation to further protect the elderly. These bills would give wider protection to financial institutions who report instances of financial abuse (including fraud) against elderly adults, impose stricter penalties for individuals convicted of elder abuse, and add elder abuse as an aggravating factor for juries to consider in death penalty cases. So far, the legislation has received support from the AARP and Tennessee Commission on Aging and Disability.
Depending on the nature of the abuse or neglect, punishment can vary depending on whether the conduct is negligent, reckless, or intentional. Charges of elder abuse come with jail time, and willful or knowing abuse is a Class D felony. The proposed bill would modify how some crimes are classified, thereby increasing fines and possible prison time. The severity of the punishment associated with elder abuse reflects the gravity of the crime and the general public’s feelings toward those who abuse elderly adults. The proposed legislation also reflects the fact that elderly Americans are quickly becoming one of the largest and fastest growing demographics in the United States. If adequate steps are not taken, this large segment of the population is at risk of further abuse.