Carole Herman’s phone is ringing all the time these days. “Our calls have probably tripled since this pandemic,” she tells me. “It’s worse than ever.”
Herman is the founder and CEO of Foundation Aiding The Elderly, aka FATE, a nonprofit that fights for elders suffering neglect or abuse in nursing homes nationwide. She’s been running FATE since the 1980s. And she says the situation has gotten worse, much worse, inside nursing homes since the crisis.
“This Covid thing has created a nightmare,” she says, “because nobody was allowed to go into the facilities, so nobody was there to protect people…nobody was going in to monitor, including inspectors. I think it’s much worse than anybody knows.”
Herman says people typically contact her either to report abuses happening to a loved one and get help seeking a resolution, to get information on patients’ rights, or to get help navigating the complex long-term care system.
It’s already well established that the nursing homes have been Ground Zero for the Covid crisis, accounting for a fifth of all U.S. Covid deaths with just 0.4% of the U.S. population. One nursing home resident in 10 has died of Covid since early 2020. And those are the official figures. A new study found that the statistics missed about 40% of nursing home Covid deaths in the early months of the pandemic.
What may be less appreciated is the effect the crisis is having on every other aspect of elder care. Inspections are down, family visits are down, and staffing levels are down—recipes for disaster.
In California, the regulators were so slow to conduct investigations even before the crisis that Herman is suing them in state court. The suit is an attempt to force the Department of Public Health to do thorough and timely investigations and to live up to their mandate to do so. California law says the Department of Public Health has to complete investigations into complaints within 180 days. The department’s own data says the average time is now 578 days—and rising.
The Department declined to comment, citing a policy of not commenting on legal matters.
A key issue with nursing home neglect and abuse is that it takes place behind closed doors. Most of it will go unreported. It’s like child abuse—except that the victims never grow up to testify.
California state regulators were getting 10,000 official complaints about abuse or neglect a year, and that was before the pandemic. Nationwide, a recent study found that about 10% of elders were subject to some kind of abuse or neglect over a 10-year period. But this didn’t even look at people over age 85, or those in nursing homes, who will be the most vulnerable.
When I see horrific videos caught on secret camera, like this of Florida nursing assistant Jonah Delgado slapping and punching a helpless 88-year old man, I wonder: How many thousands or tens of thousands of cases are going on undetected? Delgado got away without jail time, incidentally. The judge declined to comment.
What can we do? “No matter where you place your family members there’s a risk of abuse and neglect,” says Herman. “You have to be vigilant and ask questions.” She recommends surprise visits on your loved one, at any hour: “You have to go any hour of the day, 24/7. Most people don’t know what their rights are.”
Families can find their rights from the federal Center for Medicare Services website, and from the relevant authority—usually the department of public health or the department of aging—in their own state. Family members have the right to visit their loved one 24 hours a day, 7 days a week under federal law, Herman says. (Nursing home operators, she adds, often fail to inform families of that.)