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Verbal Abuse in Nursing Homes

One of the most common types of emotional abuse suffered by the elderly is verbal abuse. Verbal abuse often occurs in nursing homes, and at least one in ten nursing home residents have experienced neglect and abuse. When an elderly person first moves to a nursing home, they may feel emotionally vulnerable because it is a big transition. In these moments, verbal abuse can be most destructive to their health and as harmful as physical abuse.

What Are Some Examples of Verbal Abuse?

When a nursing staff member makes a statement that causes the resident to feel emotional pain, distress, or fear, it is an act of verbal abuse. Because staff has authority and power over the patient, the patient may not know how to respond or report the verbal abuse. Though staff members are in a position where they can regularly abuse patients verbally, a large amount of verbal abuse is also inflicted by other residents and visiting family members. Some types of verbal abuse include:

  • Yelling, screaming, and shouting
  • Threatening and intimidation
  • Insulting and name calling
  • Blaming and scapegoating
  • Talking to the patient like they are a child
  • Scolding and criticizing

Why Does Verbal Abuse Happen?

Sometimes verbal abuse comes from the frustration and impatience of the nursing facility staff. Caring for elderly patients is extremely stressful, especially in facilities that are understaffed. As cognitive abilities degenerate, some residents become more erratic and aggressive, while others lose the ability to control bodily functions. These problems may contribute to the frustration of nursing home staff who then lashes out at patients with verbal abuse.

Another cause of verbal abuse is impatience of nursing home staff. The staff at nursing home facilities often has to care for many patients at once, and so have to rush patients through tasks in order to give other patients proper attention. When facilities are severely understaffed, this becomes an even bigger problem. If patients are moving very slowly through tasks such as eating, walking, or going to the bathroom, staff members may become impatient and start inflicting verbal abuse. In some nursing homes, patients who consistently eat too slowly are verbally abused and threatened with force feeding.

How Does Verbal Abuse Affect the Patients?

Verbal abuse can be devastating to patients and cause long lasting emotional and psychological damage. If a patient is suffering from dementia or other cognitive diseases, these attacks can be even harder to understand. When patients first enter a nursing home, they often feel more emotionally vulnerable, and the abuse by staff exacerbates this. Extreme emotional distress can eventually lead to health problems as the stress can weaken the patient’s immune system and make them more vulnerable to infection.

What Are the Signs of Verbal Abuse?

Unlike physical abuse, there is usually no physical evidence of verbal abuse. When patients are being abused by staff members, they may also be afraid to report the abuse to others. There are also cultural factors that affect some patients and cause them to stay silent and accept the abuse of their caretakers. However, there are some signs of verbal abuse such as:

  • Withdrawal and depression
  • Low self esteem
  • Changes in personality and behavior
  • Agitation
  • Insomnia
  • Excessive fear and nervousness

How Can Verbal Abuse Be Prevented?

Before selecting a nursing home, family members should tour the nursing home as well as speak to staff. If possible, they should also try to speak to other patients and their families to get a better sense of the level of care.

Once the patient is admitted, the family members should visit regularly and become familiar with the staff members who care for their loved one. If they suspect verbal abuse, they should remove the patient immediately and report the abuse to the authorities.


Hawes, Catherine. “Elder Mistreatment: Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation in an Aging America.” NCBI. National Academy of Sciences, n.d. Web. 16 Feb 2014. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK98786/>.

Kusserow, Richard. “Understanding and Preventing Abuse.”Resident Abuse in Nursing Homes. Department of Health and Human Services, n.d. Web. 16 Feb 2014. <https://oig.hhs.gov/oei/reports/oei-06-88-00360.pdf>.

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