Inadequate care in American nursing homes is a widespread problem, with often dire consequences. One recent case in California highlights the issue of suicide in long term care settings, which fortunately is not a common problem, though the statistics are not decreasing. Nursing home negligence lawyers at Pintas & Mullins bring this case to light to discuss the taboo subject of suicide among the elderly.
According to Geriatric Medicine and Medical Direction, the prevalence of depression in nursing homes is between 12% and 50%, depending on varying definitions. Many who actually work in the industry, however, tend to estimate the rates much higher, due to the nature of long term care facilities themselves. Residents are generally inactive, suffer from wide ranges of cognitive and physical ailments, lack personal autonomy, and are constantly confronted with sickness and death.
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The case we would like to discuss, Del Rosa Villa v. Kathleen Sebelius, centers on a suicide that occurred in 2009. In May of that year, the resident jumped in front of a car in a suicide attempt and broke his leg. He was brought to a local hospital, where he was voluntarily committed to a psychiatric ward. Hospital physicians noted that he had intermittent thoughts of suicide, that his actions were unpredictable, and he posed a risk to himself if discharged.
A few weeks later, he was discharged to the Del Rosa Villa nursing facility where a nurse recommended he be placed on 24-hour suicide watch. Physicians noted he was experiencing hallucinations and delusions, writing that he be on suicide watch at all times. In June 2009, the resident was prescribed Ativan, a sedative that can actually increase the risk of suicidal thoughts.
In fact, according to Ativan’s labels, “older adults may be more sensitive to side effects, and the elderly may not experience relief of anxiety, it may have the opposite effect.” Despite these clear warnings, his dosage was increased several times. Then, during a late night in mid-June, after another dosage increase, the resident walked outside through the laundry room, telling the nursing staff he was going to have a cigarette. Just before 1 a.m., he was found hanging on the parking lot fence by his belt, and died soon after.
Medicare and Medicaid investigated and fined Del Rosa $10,000 for failing to supervise the high-risk resident. Del Rosa appealed, however the appeals court confirmed that it was reasonably foreseeable that the resident would harm himself if he was allowed to leave the facility unattended.
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Unfortunately, suicide rates are high among the elderly. If any dangerous thoughts are expressed or suspected, it is critical that nursing home staff create an emergency care plan for that resident and strictly adhere to that plan. This can include anything from 15-minute checks to more frequent physician sessions (physicians must always be informed of resident’s depression assessments). If a care plan is explicitly established, and the nursing home staff fails to adequately follow it, any harm inflicted upon the resident can be grounds for a lawsuit.
The following are items that are most cited as reason for liability in suicide lawsuits against nursing homes:
1. The facility failed to adequately asses resident’s mental health upon admission
2. Staff failed to advise the resident’s physician of any changes in their mental health
3. Staff failed to monitor a resident prescribed to anti-depressants or psychotropic medications
Most residents with suicidal thoughts have co-morbid mental conditions, such as depression, and it is more common among men and those who had been living in the nursing home for less than six months. Diagnosis of depression almost always precedes a suicide attempt, and admission to a nursing home can be traumatic and worsen mental ailments.
Our team of nursing home negligence attorneys urges families of nursing home residents to make sure their loved one is being screen for depression about twice a year. If there is a reasonable suspicion of suicide, the resident should be transferred to the closest hospital. Remember that it is okay to ask your loved one if they have had thoughts of harming themselves – this does not increase the risk, it will only give them an opportunity to talk about sensitive issues.