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Physical Elder Abuse

A California Elder Abuse Lawyer Can Help Protect Your Loved Ones From Physical Abuse

When you place the care of your elderly family member in the hands of another person or institution, such as a nursing home or residential care facility for the elderly, you trust that the staff will treat your loved one like their own—with professional, full-time care and compassion. Choosing a nursing home for loved ones is never easy, but such facilities should be selected based on which one will be the best fit and provide the highest quality of care for your loved one.

Nursing homes are meant to be literal homes for older residents who can no longer live on their own, or whose needs have increased beyond their family’s ability to provide. For this reason, physical abuse in nursing homes—bed sores, broken bones, caregiver neglect, sexual assault, or other physical trauma—should never be tolerated. Family members should be on guard against signs of abuse, and should act immediately at the first signs or suspicions of a problem. The WELFARE AND INSTITUTIONS CODE 15600, ET SEQ. encourages individuals to report known or suspected cases of abuse.

If your loved one has been subject to abuse in his or her nursing home, healthcare facility, assisted living facility, retirement home or other residence,, you should seek legal counsel from an experienced California elder abuse lawyer to determine the best course of action. The attorneys at Evans Law Firm are dedicated to representing the interests of elders in our community by pursuing civil actions against those who harm them.

Examples of Physical Elder Abuse

Elder abuse can take many forms, but one of the most disturbing, is physical abuse. Physical elder abuse involves abusive behavior that is intended to inflict physical harm or pain on the individual, such as hitting, slapping, pinching, pushing, over- or under-medicating, and excessive or unnecessary use of restraints. The most serious of these acts include:

  • Assault
  • Battery
  • Unreasonable physical constraint or prolonged or continual deprivation of food or water
  • Neglect or abandonment by caregivers
  • The use of a physical or chemical restraint or psychotropic medication
  • Sexual elder abuse

These above actions can have severe and debilitating effects on elders, especially because many elders are already in physically weakened or vulnerable states. As such, when a senior becomes the victim of physical elder abuse, the law provides a remedy in the form of a civil personal injury action.  In certain cases, the victim may be entitled to an award of attorney’s’ fees and costs for bringing the action. Our law firm will evaluate your potential claim and provide an estimate as to the possible damages your loved one may receive.

What are Warning Signs of Nursing Home Abuse or Physical Elder Abuse?

Physical elder abuse can often be difficult for friends and family members to detect. It generally occurs behind closed doors either in a nursing home or in the victim’s own home, which reduces the risk of witnesses. Abusers also tend to exercise significant power and domination over their victims and have the ability to control access to them, which can further hinder detection. Injuries due to physical elder abuse, such as bruises or broken bones, often have plausible explanations (e.g., “the victim fell”). And in many cases, the victim is unable to report the abuse due to severe cognitive decline — or, in more sinister cases, due to the abuser cutting off the victim’s lines of communication with the outside world. 

In the absence of direct evidence of physical elder abuse, concerned friends and family members should look out for one or more of the following warning signs that physical elder abuse may be occurring

  • Unexplained illnesses or injuries
  • Distress, distance and agitation
  • Unexplained bruising or wounds
  • Change in demeanor or personality
  • Dramatic weight loss due to malnutrition
  • Unsanitary living conditions
  • Sudden or unexplained death
  • Caregivers who hover around the victim and answer questions for them
  • Vague or unsatisfactory explanations for the victim’s injuries
  • Fear or unusual silence when in the presence of a particular person
  • Reoccurring injuries, infections, or illnesses
  • Depression and withdrawal

The Causes of Physical Elder Abuse

The causes of physical elder abuse are many and varied. It is important to keep in mind that anyone can be an abuser — even those who seem the least likely to engage in abuse. This does not mean that you should necessarily expect elder abuse from anyone who is tasked with caring for the elderly, but you should be aware that looks can be deceiving. The exact reasons for physical elder abuse often boil down to the specific personalities or situations involved.

 Characteristics of abusers may include:

  • Antisocial personality traits, such as lying, having a disregard for right and wrong, superficial charm and manipulation, and lack of empathy
  • Drug and alcohol abuse
  • Unexplained absences from the job; calling in “sick” frequently or at the last minute
  • Depression, loneliness, and social isolation
  • Dependence on the victim for financial support
  • Experiencing or witnessing abuse as a child
  • Poor preparation or training for a caregiving role

In the nursing home context, physical elder abuse typically can be explained by:

  • Understaffing
  • Staff burnout
  • Negligent hiring or training
  • Lack of supervision
  • Staff not qualified to care for dementia/Alzheimer’s patients
  • Low pay and high workloads
  • Job-related stress
  • Poor management
  • Poor workplace culture
  • Lack of accountability
  • Improper reporting procedures

No matter the cause, physical elder abuse can take a severe toll on the health and well-being of its victims. Physical elder abuse is associated with shorter life expectancy, psychological distress, cognitive impairment, and increased medical costs. If you suspect that someone you care about may be the victim of physical elder abuse, you should consider getting in touch with a California physical elder abuse attorney.

Medication-Related Physical Elder Abuse

Not all physical abuse involves hitting, pushing, slapping, or otherwise laying hands on the victim. Some forms — such as medication-related physical elder abuse — are more sophisticated and are often committed under the guise of “helping” the victim. Medication-related physical elder abuse often involves a chain of command between the victim, the victim’s caregivers, and the victim’s doctors, in which the victim’s caregivers will fabricate or exaggerate the victim’s symptoms in order to obtain a certain type of medication from the victim’s treating physician.

In some cases, medication issues are unintentional and merely the result of miscommunications among the victim, nursing home staff, and the victim’s healthcare team. But in other cases, they are intentional. Sedation and over-medication may constitute a “chemical restraint” of the patient, which is illegal. Some examples of intentional medication-related physical elder abuse include:

  • Withholding necessary medication from the victim
  • Administering a medication the victim was not prescribed
  • Over-medicating the victim with a prescribed medication
  • Under-medicating the victim (often with the intent of causing physical pain)
  • Using medication as a form of sedation or restraint
  • Administering a medication that the victim has previously refused
  • Administering a medication that the abuser knows is harmful to the victim

Abusers misuse medications for a variety of reasons. For example, the abuser might administer a powerful and dangerous painkiller (such as fentanyl or morphine) to sedate the victim as a means of avoiding caring for the victim’s needs. Or perhaps the abuser might withhold painkillers from the victim to punish them for some perceived transgression or to assert dominance. Medication-related physical elder abuse can have dire consequences, so you should speak to a California elder abuse attorney if you suspect it is currently occurring or has occurred in the past.

Caretakers as Abusers

Caregiver abuse is of particular concern for nursing home patients as well as for individuals who receive care at home. Nursing home patients typically rely on professional caregivers for most or all of their daily needs.  

Institutional caregiver abuse often begins when caregivers lose empathy for their patients, which can be caused by work-related stress, substance abuse, or underlying mental health issues. When a caregiver begins to see patients not as individuals, but as mere objects, it becomes much easier for them to take their frustrations out on their patients. Nursing homes may also fail to complete background checks on employees or fail to check references.  Training may also be inadequate.  A few red flags that indicate that an institutional caregiver is abusing or is at risk of abusing their patients include:

  • Unreasonable workloads
  • Financial strain
  • Personal problems at home
  • Pre-existing psychological disorders
  • Drug and alcohol abuse
  • Prior abusive or violent behavior

Caregiver abuse in nursing homes can also be more difficult to detect than in residential settings, as nursing home staff exercise a great deal of control over their patients. For example, they can often limit visiting hours or offer plausible but untruthful explanations to family members about injuries to their patients. If you suspect that a caregiver for someone you love may be abusive or at risk of becoming abusive, you should contact a California elder abuse attorney to investigate and, if necessary, institute legal action against the nursing home.

Because many older people need help with their day-to-day tasks, whether it is someone to bring in groceries and do light cleaning a few times a week, or full-time care and attention from an in-home nurse or relative, there is a fear of becoming a burden on that caretaker, or on the family. These abusers target that fear, placing the victims in a constant state of emotional strain, worrying that they are not worthy of care, time, or attention, or that money and time are being “wasted” on them.

Unfortunately, the environment is ripe for emotional abuse anywhere that a senior citizen is dependent on another person for care. When emotional abuse comes from a caretaker, the fear of being a burden is constantly reinforced, and can drive the victim to despair and desperation.

What makes elder abuse even more troubling is that it is usually difficult to tell when it is going on. Unlike physical abuse, there are no bruises or broken bones as evidence. A victim is much less likely to report emotional abuse, because the primary goal of this abuse is to erode the person’s self-worth. Once emotional abuse reaches a level where the victim feels worthless and degraded, or like no one cares about him or her, the abuser is likely to continue to get away with these actions.

Some signs of potential emotional abuse include withdrawal, increased anxiety, displays of discomfort around a specific person, lack of contact, communication, or positive thinking, or changes in mood and temperament. If any of these signs are present, someone may be emotionally abusing your loved one, and you should act immediately.

Statutes of Limitations for Physical Elder Abuse

Statutes of limitations are designed to limit the amount of time that a potential plaintiff has to file a lawsuit. Although this may seem unfair in the context of elder abuse claims, statutes of limitations serve several important public policy objectives, such as:

  • Ensuring that physical evidence and witness testimony are fresh and reliable, as the quality of both deteriorate over time
  • Relieving potential defendants of the prospect of litigation hanging over their heads for years (or even decades)
  • Encouraging victims to investigate and speak out promptly

There are different statutes of limitations in each state for different types of crime. In California, the general statute of limitations for injuries to persons (including physical elder abuse) is two years. Calif. Civ. Pro. § 335.1.  However, in cases where physical elder abuse is alleged as part of a larger medical malpractice claim against a healthcare provider, the statute of limitations drops to one year. Calif. Civ. Pro. § 340.5. And for actions against public entities, the statute of limitations drops further to six months. Cal. Govt. Code § 911.2(a).

Can the Statute of Limitations be Extended?

In some cases, a statute of limitations can be suspended (or “tolled”), giving the potential plaintiff more time to bring his or her case. For example, California law allows for tolling of the statute of limitations in situations where the defendant is out of the state for a certain amount of time (Cal. Civ. Pro. § 351) and in cases where either the plaintiff or the defendant die before the expiration of the statute of limitations. Cal. Civ. Pro. §§ 366.1 and 366.2.  It can also be tolled in cases of delayed discovery — situations in which the plaintiff is not reasonably aware of the injury, nor would he or she be able to discover it through investigation. Jolly v. Eli Lilly& Co., 44 Cal.3d 1103 (1988).

Contact a California Elder Abuse Attorney

If you suspect that someone you love may have been the victim of physical elder abuse, you should act swiftly to file your claim before the statute of limitations expires. For more information about physical elder abuse, contact the Evans Law Firm, Inc. by calling 415-441-8669.

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