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Nursing home residents and traumatic brain injuries

If you are one of the numerous Mississippi residents who has had to make the painful decision to put your aging parent in a nursing home, his or her health and safety are always on your mind. You worry that (s)he may suffer neglect or even abuse by nursing home employees.

Sadly, even in the best, most well-staffed and well-managed nursing homes, accidents do happen, and falls are the accidents that most often happen to nursing home residents. To make matters worse, the older your parent becomes, the more likely it is that (s)he will fall. Once that happens, (s)he then is likely to fall more often as time goes on. While not all falls are life-threatening, they are the most common reason for the high incidence of traumatic brain injury among older adults. A TBI happens when a person receives a blow to the head that causes the brain to dysfunction.

Often nursing home falls and their consequent TBIs happen because the elderly resident does not receive the help (s)he needs to get out of bed, walk to the bathroom or dining room, or do other normal daily activities. If your parent becomes tired of waiting for someone to answer his or her call light, (s)he may well decide to do what (s)he needs or wants to do without assistance.

TBI statistics among the elderly

During a recent five-year period, 142,000 elderly people went to an emergency room because of a TBI. Of this number, approximately 81,500 of them had to be admitted to the hospital due to the severity of their injury. At least 14,300 of them died. Even for those who survived their injury, their TBI symptoms lasted longer than they did for younger people who had received similar TBIs, and their prognoses were considerably poorer.

TBI symptoms

No two TBIs are alike, and symptoms can vary from victim to victim. In addition, symptoms may not appear until days or even weeks after the injury occurs. Consequently, if your parent falls or otherwise hits his or her head on something, (s)he may not even realize (s)he has suffered an injury. However, if the nursing home calls you to report a fall or if your parent mentions one on your next visit, be on the lookout for the following symptoms

  • Unusual difficulties thinking, reasoning or remembering
  • Unusual difficulties speaking
  • Unusual difficulties understanding what you say
  • Inappropriate responses to your questions and comments
  • Unusual depression, anxiety, crankiness, aggressiveness or other behavior changes

Any of these symptoms could be a sign that your parent has suffered a TBI. If you notice any of them, insist that your parent receives an examination from a doctor if he or she has not already had one. If necessary, insist that the nursing home call an ambulance to take your parent to the emergency room where a trauma specialist can examine him or her. Even if (s)he shows no visible signs of a head injury, such as a bruise, bump or swelling, approximately 50 percent of elderly TBI patients require surgery to repair bruised brain tissue, a/k/a contusions, and/or ruptured blood vessels, a/k/a hematomas.

Left untreated, a TBI can cause your parent to lose consciousness or slip into a coma. It also could lead to your parent lapsing into a persistent vegetative state and/or dying. If your parent is 75 or older when he or she suffers a TBI, his or her risk of dying from it is substantially higher than if (s)he were younger.

Even though you probably cannot visit your elderly parent every day to make sure (s)he is being well treated and well taken care of by the nursing home staff, you need to be proactive about his or her safety and well-being. Do not hesitate to ask questions of the staff and do not be satisfied with evasive or unresponsive answers. If you believe your parent is suffering abuse or neglect, call your local elder abuse hotline and report your suspicions.

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