Elder Abuse On the Rise as Nursing Home Residents Get Younger

Nursing homes across the country are experiencing a shift in the age of its residents. In California, the number of nursing home residents under the age of 65 has increased 40% since 1994, while the number of residents over the age of 65 decreased by 11%. In fact, nearly one-fifth of California nursing home residents are under the age of 65. What does this shift in age demographic in California nursing homes mean? It is unclear why the age of residents is shifting down, but the effect is quickly becoming a problem. Instances of nursing home abuse are correlated with the influx of younger residents.

Nursing homes were designed to be a place where California’s elderly can enjoy life in a safe, comfortable, and secure environment. With Medicaid and Medicare footing the bill for many younger residents – many of whom suffer from mental illnesses – this environment is being compromised. Nursing homes are reportedly understaffed, undertrained, and underpaid. An epidemic of elder abuse is spreading as nursing homes fail to provide proper care and attention to its residents.

California takes allegations of elder abuse very seriously. Elder abuse is a criminal offense under California’s Penal Code and a civil offense under the Elder Abuse and Dependent Adult Civil Protection Act. Those accused of elder abuse may face steep penalties – including significant jail time, fines, and financial obligations to victims and their families.

Criminal Elder Abuse in California

Elder abuse is committed when a person knowingly or willfully causes or permits an elderly person to suffer unjustifiable physical pain or mental anguish, or who places an elderly person in a situation where his or her health is endangered.

For the purposes of California law, an elderly person is defined as a person age 65 or older. The influx of younger nursing home residents poses an interesting dilemma for cases nursing home abuse. If one in five residents is not considered to be elderly, accusations of harm must be made on different grounds. Negligence, assault, battery, or negligent infliction of emotional distress may be proper grounds for claims of abuse.

California prosecutors have the discretion to charge elder abuse as a misdemeanor or a felony offense. Misdemeanor elder abuse is punishable by up to one year in county jail, while felony elder abuse is punishable by between 2 and 4 years in prison. Sentences may be extended if the victim suffers great bodily harm or is killed.

Civil Elder Abuse in California

Victims of elder abuse and/or their families may seek damages from the accused under California’s Elder Abuse and Dependent Adult Civil Protection Act. Damages that may be recovered for elder abuse in California include:

  • Special damages such as medical expenses, hospital stays, rehab, home-health aides, therapy, and funeral expenses; or
  • General damages such as pain and suffering, anguish, and loss of consortium.

A victim and/or their family may seek these damages if they sustain an injury or are killed as the result of physical abuse, abandonment, isolation, neglect, abduction, or other harmful behavior, or are deprived of care by a custodian of goods or services that are necessary to avoid harm.

The elderly are also often targets of financial fraud. Victims and/or their families may also seek damages for elder financial abuse. Punitive damages may be available for victims of elder financial abuse.

Elder Abuse Must Be Reported

The rise of volatile nursing home environments – and reports of fighting, harassment, and theft – increases the potential for elder abuse. Anyone in California who is entrusted with the care of the elderly is legally required to report instances of abuse. Suspected abuse must also be reported. Individuals who may shoulder this legal responsibility include administrators, supervisors, and licensed staff of both private and public nursing care facilities and clergy, care custodians, and employees of adult protective services.

Failure to uphold this legal obligation may result in criminal sanctions including jail time and/or fines of up to $5,000.

Joshua W. Glotzer, APC