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Suspicious Nursing Home Deaths Rarely Investigated

When young people die, there is almost always some type of investigation, some burning drive to find a definitive answer – even when there is nothing sinister about it.

However, our nursing home abuse lawyers in Port St. Lucie know the opposite is true for our elderly. Even in cases where there may be some suspicious circumstances surrounding the person’s passing, there is a general assumption that when an elderly person dies, it was simply his or her time. It’s especially easy to do this when the person suffered from debilitating health issues or conditions that are known to eventually prove fatal.

Unfortunately, these kind of assumptions result in the possibility that cases of serious neglect or abuse may be overlooked. It also allows the possibility that criminal actions may go unpunished – or worse, repeated.

ProPublica and Frontline recently tackled this issue in “Gone Without a Case: Suspicious Elder Deaths Rarely Investigated,” part of a lengthier series on the fallibility and lack of oversight in postmortem investigations.

Case-in-point was a man who died in a California nursing home in 2007 at the age of 76. Paralyzed by stroke and suffering congestive heart failure and an inability to communicate due to dementia, there was apparently nothing on the surface that raised any immediate concern about his death. The chief medical examiner cited his cause of death as heart failure.

The family had no reason to doubt this, and the retired government scientist was subsequently buried at a local cemetery.

It wasn’t until later that a tip from a nursing home staffer would prompt officials to re-examine what happened to the former patient. A review of medical records would reveal that his actual cause of death was the result of a combination of medical conditions routinely related to poor care: dehydration, pneumonia, sepsis and an infected ulcer. He was also given a host of powerful antipsychotic drugs, known to have potentially fatal side effects for older patients.

Two years after he died, three nursing home staffers were charged in the deaths of this man and two others at the nursing homes. The criminal cases are still pending. The medical license of the doctor who had been in charge of his care was restricted and federal investigators fined the nursing home $150,000 for various violations.

The case is tragic for what this patient and others who resided with him had suffered. But we are kidding ourselves if we allow ourselves to believe that such cases are isolated to this one nursing home or even to the state of California. Such scenarios occur all over the country, and few have the luxury of a whistle blower willing to come forward.

ProPublica in its series alone identified more than 35 similar cases in which elder abuse, neglect and even homicide escaped the attention of authorities. But for the dogged push of concerned relatives and others, these cases would never have been brought to justice.

Part of the problem, the reporters concluded, is a chronic underfunding of medical examiner offices, coupled with a severe shortage of trained doctors and an absence of uniform national standards when it comes to elder death investigations.

The problem is expected to worsen as we notice a spike in the average population age. Autopsies of seniors over the age of 65 dropped from 37 percent down to 17 percent from 1972 through 2007, according to government research. In some cases, doctors are permitted to fill out death certificates without ever even seeing the body.

If you have concerns about the circumstances surrounding your loved one’s death, don’t be afraid to come forward with those concerns. Nursing home abuse and neglect is unfortunately far too common. It shouldn’t be allowed to continue unpunished.

Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights.

Additional Resources:
Gone Without a Case: Suspicious Elder Deaths Rarely Investigated, Dec. 21, 2011, By Chisun Lee and A.C. Thompson, ProPublica and Carl Byker, PBS “Frontline”

More Blog Entries:
Royal Palm Beach Nursing Home Abuse Lawyers: Death Raises Suspicions, Oct. 1, 2013, Port St. Lucie Nursing Home Abuse Lawyer

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