Long term care residents have inalienable rights too

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Thomas Jefferson may have written that sentence in the Declaration of Independence, but these truths are not self-evident to everyone. Frail older people get bullied and their rights get trampled, at times by family members, at other times by staff in long term care facilities. The tramplers may even have good intentions, but their lack of respect for older persons’ rights cannot be excused.

Some facilities believe they have the right to tell an adult he “can’t leave.” This may be true if a resident has a court-appointed guardian who has not approved a discharge from a facility. It may also be true if the resident’s mental capacity is so diminished that an informed choice is not possible. But all the other adults can leave whenever they want. Social workers in one facility told a resident that they would not let him go to a relative’s wedding because it “wasn’t safe.” They overstepped their bounds, essentially confining him against his will, violating his right to leave.

We’ve heard about other cases where residents are told they “can’t see” or “can’t talk to” a particular friend or family member. If there is a restraining order, that may be true. If the visitor poses a risk to other residents, then the administrator does have a right to limit his access to the home. But otherwise, adults get to see and talk to whomever they like.

One adult daughter with a durable power of attorney told the facility that her mother could not see another family member. The facility called the Ombudsman’s office to ask if they had to honor the daughter’s request. Our answer was “no.” We advised them that they needed to honor the resident’s wishes because she still had the ability and right to decide for herself and see whomever she wished.

Residents have a right to their own religious beliefs. One resident complained that the facility made him say grace at meals. That was not OK. Residents also have a right to privacy. Staff cannot listen in on the phone line or open a resident’s mail without permission. Staff cannot interfere with couples who want to close the door and be sexually intimate, so long as both are adults with the capacity to consent.

Finally, residents have a right to life. We’ve seen a family member with power of attorney tell a facility to take her spouse off dialysis and discontinue his medications, even though he was in no way terminally ill. The home asked us if they had to abide by her wishes. Our answer, of course, was “no.” Not even legal guardians have the right to discontinue treatment.

Our “unalienable rights” include freedom of choice, speech and movement as well as the same protection from harm and discrimination, the same access to justice, as everyone else. If you see vulnerable seniors treated in a way that seems wrong or makes you uneasy, trust your instincts and give the Ombudsman’s office a call at 334-4480 or 800-730-6393.

Our rights are only as good as our willingness to defend them.

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