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A valuable lesson learned. Catherine Aaronson shares her family’s horrid experience with a nursing home. Aaronson recently delivered a TED Talk at the University of Tulsa on elderly abuse. (All Photos Courtesy of Aaronson Family)
By Catherine Aaronson
All of us are going to die someday. Right now, we are working towards our futures, not thinking about our final days. We don’t think about how, just as we are born dependent, we will likely die as such, in the loving arms of someone caring for us. If we’re lucky, at least.
If we’re lucky, we’ll meet our end a long time from now at peace and surrounded by caring hands who help us retain our dignity, even as they do for us the things we once could do for ourselves.
I want to ask you today to think about how you want to face death, so that you will be part of the solution to end the dark side of caregiving otherwise known as elder abuse a fate that affects 1 in 10 seniors every year.
My father’s mom was vivacious and thriving until she suffered a stroke. Once she was moved into a nursing home to be cared for, she became upset about not being able to be independent anymore. Her decline in health and mental state was obvious and no matter what my family did, we couldn’t seem to improve her condition. Her nurses brushed off these issues as nothing more than the aging process. One day, she called my father begging him to get her out of that place because she had witnessed something horrible. A friend of hers had fallen in the hall outside of her room and laid there for HOURS before being helped. My grandmother described seeing a nurse step over this woman, saying, “you’re not on my service, and I’m not going to help you.” This story was verified by my grandmother’s roommate, but the case made against the nurses never saw the light of day, because no one believes the old and senile.
The National Council on Aging estimates that only 1 in 14 cases of elder abuse are reported to the authorities. Similar to my Gram’s situation, a lot of the reasons these cases go unreported is because the witnesses are the elderly themselves and their word stands very small compared to those of an able-minded young adult. There’s a stigma here I’d like to bring attention to: ageism, where, in your old age, discriminated against and where you are suddenly deemed unable to make cognizant decisions and your wishes are disregarded.
The neglect in this particular nursing home, one that came with good reviews and that my family trusted, was later responsible for another injury. This one took a life, a life of someone that I loved. My grandma, who was not supposed to be out of bed on her own, fell in the hallway and hit her head. This caused her to slip into a coma and she passed away.
In ancient times, the elderly were revered and thought of as the most wise and valuable members of society. Today, when family members are no longer able to care for their elderly, they end up in a care home, subject to high chances of neglect and abuse, where the living conditions themselves are often below what the already-low standard is. Just like technology, we have become entrapped in having the best and latest model. Whether it be our phones, cars, or clothing, we have started a society that relies on instant gratification and easy fixes to our problems. The creation of nursing homes, retirement homes, and other care homes were originally designed with good intentions and as an easy fix to the problem of our aging family members. They still hold a positive mission statement but rarely live up to their promises.
When you Google search “elderly” the first suggested search item is “abuse”. When you follow that very search, you get the dictionary definition of what this means but only after about four different ads for attorneys and law offices to see if there’s a case to be made; and for good reason, there’s big money in elder abuse cases. One of the biggest names in senior living in the United States reached a $1 million settlement in February of 2016 for elder abuse and a wrongful death. Another $13 million settlement was made a year prior for the same company. This corporation had another lawsuit filed against them because “an 88-year-old dementia patient in Michigan walked out of an unlocked back door where she slipped and fell, could not gain re-entry, and froze to death outside overnight.” These cases have been hidden from the public because these huge corporations don’t want potential customers to know they are truly failing in providing quality health care.
So my question is, why is this corporation still in business? And more importantly, why don’t they stop putting millions into covering up the abuse cases and instead, put that money into better care so the abuse can end in the first place?
According to the best available estimates, between 1 and 2 million Americans age 65 or older have been injured, exploited, or otherwise mistreated by someone on whom they depended for care or protection.
A friend of mine that has been working in a nursing home for 5 years as a CNA and 3-years as a Home Health Aide has described situations in which residents have developed serious bed sores from not being looked after properly. He then continued to say that if there was one thing he could change about elder care it would be that each person would be assigned a personal caregiver. This seems like a simple enough solution. However, there is a serious job shortage in this field. Claire Phillips, who worked as a nurse in a care home, said that “working in a nursing home is seen as a job you do when you can’t get a job in a hospital […] or want an easier life.” So it’s no surprise that there’s a shortage of care in these homes. The jobs themselves are often grueling, pay little, and come with no benefits. In addition to these low rewards, the screening process is poor. The New York Times highlighted that the workforce that typically fills these jobs — poorly educated, low income — [will not have a big increase] over the next 10 years”.
My mother’s mom was the woman I was named after. You could hear her laugh from the other room and was the type of person that could entertain an entire group of people with one of her stories. She was my best friend.
At 93, she was going strong. My mom and I moved in with her to help take care of her in the beginning of my sophomore year of high school. Near the end of my junior year, I walked into the kitchen to find her unable to form words correctly and her arms were slack. For many of you, you are thinking these are the classic signs of a stroke. That’s exactly what I thought and I called 911. Lucky for us, it was only a urinary tract infection also known as a UTI. UTI’s are extremely common in the elderly. They are dangerous because they are so difficult to prevent. You avoid them by drinking plenty of water. But when older people drink too much water, it flushes out their system and they suffer sodium deficiencies. It’s all about maintaining a balance- a balance neither my mom or I were aware of needed to be factored into her care. A balance that many trained nurses were not aware of either – because even in the care of the rehab facilities she began cycling through, she kept getting them.
I began to be an expert at knowing when there was something wrong with her. I could see the warning signs of a UTI days before anyone else did and I tried to warn her nurse once. I was brushed off as not knowing what I was talking about because I was only 16. Ageism: it is aneurism that nearly killed my grandmother because a few days later, my mother got a call that she had another episode and a severe one. The culprit was another UTI.
The same widely known senior living corporation, with several lawsuits made against it that I mentioned earlier, was the same company that owned the nursing home that my grandma stayed in. The same nursing home that brushed me off. The same nursing home that was so understaffed that when my mom pressed the emergency button in my grandmother’s room it took 13 minutes and 28 seconds for someone to show up. The same nursing home that I would hear other patients screaming “you’re hurting me” in rooms down the hall. And it was when no matter what my mother and I did, and changes still could not be made, that I truly realized how prevalent elderly abuse was. It was also then that I realized it was time for a change: economic power being used to silence what is right can no longer be the norm.
My grandmother, namesake, and best friend passed away on November 1, 2015. And that is why I am spreading these stories and statistics, to educate and motivate so together, we can end the abuse.
These are not only distant people but our family members. Our best friend’s parents, the ones that would put up with our late night sleepovers. They are our neighbors, teachers, role models. Someone’s loved one. Someone’s husband. Someone’s entire world.
91% of nursing homes lack adequate staff to properly care for their patients.
These people gave us the world we live in. Their sacrifices yesterday paved the way for our success today and we would be nowhere without the legacy that they left in our culture and in our families.
They deserve the same unbiased respect they gave to us because the terrifying fact is that elders who experienced abuse had a 300% higher risk of death when compared to those who had not.
These stories have gone unnoticed for too long. The small changes we can begin to make start with changing the cultural mindset that growing old is a burden and quit allowing the abuse to simply slip by. Through this, we can eventually change laws and make waves.
As you transition into caring for your parents, start setting an example for everyone else.
We need to learn now. Explore other possibilities. Get creative with care and what we consider the standards of it because as our generation grows up, we will become the change that we are looking for.
After all, it won’t be long until we ourselves are elders.
Catherine Lynn Elizabeth Aaronson V is a student at the University of Tulsa studying Biology, Chemistry, and Creative Writing at the University of Tulsa to become future veterinarian. On campus she’s spotted wearing a jean jacket, talking about music, writing in highlighter, and drinking water out of a bottle covered in stickers. In highschool, through studying forensics, Aaronson found her voice in public speaking, performance, and spreading awareness for her beliefs. She would like to be known as the girl with hair as big as her heart.