Bully for you: Nursing home resident-on-resident violence

As a caregiver, you may have decided to place an aging loved one in a nursing home. Ideally, one of several deciding factors is whether you feel you can trust the facility’s staff to treat the residents with respect, dignity, understanding, and patience, as opposed to say, stealing their medications to get a buzz on. What you may not know, however, is that more often than you’d think nursing home residents are the victims of abuse, not at the hands of the employees, but of their fellow residents. Many elderly people may have lost their original teeth long ago, but it’s still a dog-eat-dog world.

According to a new study, 407 – approximately 20% – of more than 2,000 elderly patients in urban and suburban nursing homes in New York State suffered verbal or physical abuse from other residents. Examples range from coming into somebody else's room and going through their stuff, wheelchair hit-and-runs, the “are you going to eat that and not going for an affirmative response before swiping food off someone else’s plate,” (also known as the “yoink”), name-calling, to physical violence and sexual assault. In general, any unwelcome behavior that could potentially cause physical or psychological distress in the other person.  

The researchers conducted interviews with staff and residents, analyzed chart reviews and accident or incident reports, and used the power of sheer observation in each of the nursing homes. “Three-quarters of these events were verbal and one-quarter were physical,” lead study author and director of the Center for Aging Research and Clinical Care at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York Dr. Mark Lachs told CBS News. The good doctor was not surprised at the fact that violence among residents occurs, but at the volume in which it does occur. Lachs believes it’s time to approach this problem with a different perspective.

Truly, the Nurse Ratched stereotype is dated and demeaning to all of our brave nurses – female and male. “[Abusive] staff should be arrested, fired, and prosecuted,” Lachs said, though he added that “I don't want to frame this as a criminal issue. I want to frame it more as an educational issue.” He went on to say that “aggression between residents needs to be given attention. You're probably at greater risk than from a staff member -- but we just don't have good numbers on that yet.” The Administration for Community Living – a branch of the HHS – estimates that 5 million elderly Americans experience mistreatment, neglect, or exploitation. And that’s not counting the cases that go without reporting.

Related: How do you know if a nursing home passes muster or not?