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Commentary | VOICES / A FORUM FOR COMMUNITY ISSUES

Lawsuits Endanger Nursing Homes -- and the Old Too

March 20, 2004|Jaime Todd | Jaime Todd is a nursing home administrator.

Individual lawsuits in recent years have resulted in multimillion-dollar judgments against nursing homes. Unfortunately, the litigation problem won't go away. It is, however, highly possible that the entire nursing home industry could.

Lawsuits against nursing homes were once considered a waste of time for attorneys. Even the general public, which forms the jury pool, frequently held the attitude that the old and frail would die anyway, so why bother?

Lawyers, the media and our court system have drastically changed that attitude. As nuclear families dispersed and became more mobile, the time-honored tradition of caring for elderly loved ones in the home morphed into a societal responsibility, relegated to a healthcare facility. Focused increasingly on me-ism and less on familial ties, family members embraced the right to be free of the encumbrances that accompany caring for the old or the sick.

Those same people who readily passed on the responsibility of caring for husband, wife or parents often readily sue the caregivers. We are becoming a nation that worships youth and vigor while eschewing the realities of aging. We spend billions to lift, tuck, suck, dye, dress, paint and powder and exercise away as many signs of accumulating years as we possibly can.

Many foolhardily pretend they are going to live forever. With such an aversion to the inevitable truth of mortality, it becomes all too easy to steel hearts and souls against those closest to us who are old, frail and weak. Stash the elderly; get them off the reality screen.

Our uninvolved treatment of the aged is not the case in all cultures, nor was it always so throughout history: Hemlock parties were common celebrations in Greece in order to transition people into their next dimension. Hippocrates condoned these rites within his holistic view of medicine.

Many other societies, such as the Eskimos', accept life-cycle practices that include setting their weak elderly adrift on an ice floe for their last earthly journey; such rituals were and are embraced by all members of the group, considered fitting and dignified.

Most Americans vehemently take a dim view of such treatment for the old and seriously infirm; I am not trying to advocate what many consider barbaric traditions. And yet, we readily endorse the separating and isolating of our aged population, frequently leaving the elderly to decline and die alone among strangers.

Like greedy vultures, many family members keep a vigilant watch in their effort to fault someone for mistreating and or disregarding their failing loved one. They will then seek to make the nursing home pay for its perceived failure to lavish the love, comfort, care and attention they expect the provider to give the patient.

Unfortunately, the economic plight created by outrageous lawsuits against the nursing home industry could well mean the disappearance of the haven those litigants might need when it's their time to go.

What will they do then? Should the nursing home industry start manufacturing ice floes for embarkation out of Laguna Beach?

And who can be sued if the tide turns and Grandma or Grandpa comes back to haunt them -- washed up on the shore?

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