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How COVID-19 Magnified Issues of Elder Abuse & Senior Care

by Vivienne Duncan June 17, 2020

As we observed World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (WEAAD) earlier this week, the City Bar Justice Center recognized the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the vulnerability of the elderly in residential facilities. Even while New York was at the center of the nation’s outbreak, the true scope of the tragedy unfolding in its nursing homes was unrecognized as attention focused on the tidal wave of COVID-19-related admissions to hospitals. Meanwhile, a related crisis was quietly playing out, under the radar, in numerous nursing homes.

While there are many facilities that provide excellent care, it is no secret that some are, in varying degrees, providing inadequate services. Over the years, the conditions in some nursing homes, such as physical abuse, neglect or financial exploitation, have led to lawsuits and calls for greater scrutiny. This possibility is a constant concern for those who have, or are thinking of placing a loved one in a nursing home. Ordinarily, there is reassurance in being able to make frequent visits to spend time and revive the spirits of loved ones while monitoring their care, but COVID-19 changed everything. With New York on lockdown, families and friends could no longer visit and even more mobile residents became fully dependent on the staff. Like the hospitals, nursing home staff complained of a lack of personal protection equipment (PPE) and, before long, residents began contracting coronavirus and death rates escalated. By the time the true extent of the nursing home crisis was understood, thousands of seniors had died. For their families and friends, all of this seemed to have taken place ‘in the shadows’, with no opportunity to be with them in their last hours – or even to attend their burial. Even the barest level of protection afforded by visits from family and friends was lost during this period and many complain that they have received no clear answers as to what was happening at the facility during the crisis.

Inevitably, investigations into what went so wrong will require looking at the various factors that resulted in thousands of deaths – including each facility’s access to PPE, staff training on caring for coronavirus-affected residents, testing and infection control, and whether staffing levels were sufficient to provide adequate care to residents. There has also been speculation that some nursing homes were reluctant to report COVID-positive cases out of fear that this could negatively impact their funding and affect their ability to bring in new residents. The catastrophic impact that COVID-19 has had in these facilities should add urgency to those calls for increased regulation and oversight. Although this will do little to ease the pain of the thousands of devasted families who were unable to be with their loved ones as they passed away, it may bring some comfort if it results in more effective nursing home regulations that will provide greater protection for this vulnerable population.

Vivienne Duncan, Esq. is the Director for the Cancer Advocacy and Elderlaw Projects.

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