Nursing home abuse is a serious issue that affects millions of seniors from all walks of life. Unfortunately, certain elderly demographics are at increased risk for abuse, either for political, physical, or mental health reasons. Nursing home abuse cannot be ignored, as it can lead to serious physical injuries, financial downfall, serious depression, and in serious cases, even early mortality.
Military veterans are an especially at-risk group for abuse and mistreatment in nursing homes. An often-neglected group, veterans, after serving their country, are commonly left without sufficient support systems, friends & family networks, and mental and physical health care services.
The US Census Bureau defines a veteran as any person who served in one or more of the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard for any period of time. The term also applies to any individual who served during the U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II. Those who served in the National Guard or Reserves are only classified as veterans in the event that they were called into active duty.
Veterans: An Aging Population
The National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics (NCVAS) collects key information and statistics on the United States’ large veteran population. According to the NCVAS’s VetPop2014 predictive statistical model, there were expected to be approximately 21.3 million veterans living in the US by 2016 (1).
While the exact number of cases of elder abuse are never known due to frequent underreporting, an increasingly aging veteran population is more likely to have an increased dependency on caregivers and nursing homes.
Of those 21.3 million veterans, approximately 9.9 million were over the age of 65, having served in one of the following wartime eras:
- World War II (pre-1939): 6,987 veterans
- World War II (1939-1946): 695,637 veterans
- Korean Conflict (1950-1955): 1,592,188 veterans
- Vietnam War (1955-1975): 6,953,004 veterans
These numbers indicate that approximately 46% of all living war veterans are over the age of 65. This percentage is expected to hold steady for several decades into the future.
Forms of Veteran Elderly Abuse
Veterans are subject to the same types of tragic elderly abuse that affect all corners of the population, including:
- Neglect: The failure of caregivers to provide the needed level of care to the veteran, resulting in serious physical or mental harm
- Physical abuse: Physical attacks such as punching, shoving, scratching, or burning
- Emotional and psychological abuse: Threats, humiliation, ridicule, and other acts of verbal assault
- Sexual abuse: Unwanted sexual touching or attention. Note that sexual abuse is less common in veteran populations as the wide majority of veterans are male, and sexual abuse is more widely reported by women.
- Financial abuse: Typically spouses, family members, friends, or neighbors pressuring the elderly for money or gaining control of a bank account and quickly draining its funds
As with the general population, the most common perpetrators of veteran elderly abuse tend to be spouses or family members, including children, stepchildren, and grandchildren.
Veterans Potentially at Increased Risk For Nursing Home Abuse
Veterans are particularly at risk for nursing home abuse and neglect due to a number of important factors:
- Increased risk for mental health disorders
- Increased risk for physical disabilities
- Fewer meaningful personal relationships
- Lowered ability to function in civilian society
These conditions leave them in a vulnerable position to be abused or neglected.
Two major risk factors for elder abuse in nursing homes include cognitive impairment and social isolation. Unfortunately, research shows that these factors also tend to lead to a decreased likelihood that nursing home abuse will be reported.
A 2011 research study conducted by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) determined that approximately 1 in 3 veterans of any age have at minimum one diagnosable mental health disorder, including depression, substance abuse, and post-traumatic stress disorder. As people age, they are also at increased risk for mental health disorders, only compounding the issue for elderly veterans.
Another 2011 study showed that primary caregivers are the most likely people to report mental health issues for the elderly. Despite heavy reliance on these caregivers, in fact, primary caregivers only detect about 40-50% of all cases of depression. As veterans are particularly vulnerable to mental health issues, it’s crucial that a veteran’s primary caregiver is focused on identifying any potential mental health issues.
A lack of proper care and attention at a nursing home can result in undiagnosed mental conditions. The neglect of a veteran’s mental health, intentional or not, can be considered an act of abuse.
With respect to social isolation, many veterans with traumatizing wartime experiences report it difficult or nearly impossible to maintain regular personal relationships after returning to normal civilian life. A lack of a proper family and close, interpersonal relationships can increase the veteran’s dependency on nursing home caregivers in the later stages in life. This subsequently leads to an increased vulnerability for abuse. Mental disorders can also place veterans at greater risk for abuse, whether it be a mental illness or emotional trauma.
Those with physical disabilities can also be at increased risk for elderly abuse. Veterans, particularly elderly veterans aged 65 and older, have an increased prevalence of physical disabilities. In 2014, 39.9% of U.S. veterans reported living with physical disabilities. The vast number of veterans with war-related disabilities makes them more defenseless against physical and even emotional attacks.
Reporting of Veteran Nursing Home Abuse
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs serves veterans and supports veterans’ affairs, providing resources on health care, geriatric assistance, and other crucial resources to veterans.