The National Safety Council reports that choking is the fourth leading cause of unintentional injury death in the country. Of the approximately 5,000 people affected annually, over half are older than 74. Tragically, choking isn’t always an accident. In nursing homes, choking can be due to neglect. Often, caregivers ignore risks associated with choking, and they fail to supervise or assist patients who ultimately end up choking to death.
Negligence at Mealtimes
In terms of choking, the most dangerous time in a nursing home is mealtime, especially for residents who require very attentive care. Sadly, a lot of nursing homes are understaffed, and they have employees who simply dish out plates of food without monitoring the patient’s consumption. This inattentiveness can result in malnutrition and dehydration, but also serious choking incidents.
Primary Causes of Choking in Nursing Homes
Elders, especially those in nursing homes, often suffer from medical conditions that heighten their risk of choking. Patients with dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and various other conditions cannot eat safely on their own. It is imperative that nursing home personnel assist these residents while they eat to make sure they don’t fill their mouths too full and that they safely swallow their food.
Even though federal laws require that nursing homes keep adequate staff on duty, many patients don’t get the assistance they need. Nursing home residents may choke for any of the following reasons:
- Ill fitting dentures
- Inability to control muscles due to nerve damage or peripheral neuropathy related to strokes or neurological disorders such as diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, Muscular Dystrophy, Multiple Sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
- Dehydration causes a dry throat and a thick tongue, making it difficult to chew and swallow.
- Epilepsy or seizures due to other conditions
- Failure to accommodate dietary needs — for instance, if a patient needs foods cut into small pieces so they can swallow, failure to do that can lead to choking
- Eating without supervision or assistance
- Failure to perform the Heimlich maneuver or other life saving remedies in a timely fashion
As you can see from the examples above, swallowing food can be difficult for some nursing home residents. When nursing homes don’t enforce dietary restrictions or when they employ staff who fail to assist or supervise residents, they put people at risk of choking, which may cause serious injury or death.
Preventing Nursing Home Residents from Choking
Nursing homes are required to keep their patients safe, and that includes taking precautions to prevent patients from choking. Patients who have difficulties swallowing should also be examined to assess the severity of their conditions. If their doctor prescribes a specialized diet or monitoring to prevent choking, those instructions should be included in the patient’s chart and all nursing home caregivers should be made aware of these guidelines. If a staff member is underqualified or not properly trained and someone dies from choking, the nursing home could be held accountable.
Is Choking Abuse?
The National Center on Elder Abuse and the US Department of Health and Human Services defines elder abuse as “any knowing, intentional or negligent act by a caregiver or any other person that causes harm or a serious risk of harm to a vulnerable adult”. Elder abuse can include physical and emotional abuse, exploitation, and neglect.
- Harmful or unwanted physical contact
- Physical restraint or isolation
- The inappropriate use of medicine
- Physical restraint, isolation, or inappropriate use of medical procedures used as punishment or against doctor’s orders
- Inappropriate conduct likely to cause physical or psychological harm
- Threatening or menacing conduct that results in fear or mental distress to a resident
Based on these definitions, allowing someone to choke when the situation is avoidable can be a form of elder abuse.
If you or a loved one has choked due to neglect from your caretaker or your nursing home, you may be entitled to compensation. Depending on the situation, you may be able to receive compensation for medical bills, physical pain, mental suffering, emotional distress, and loss of enjoyment of life as well as other damages. To learn more about nursing home abuse, contact us at Mazow | McCullough, PC for a free case evaluation.