Ken Connor

Why is this happening? Why would those in the business of caring for America's elderly turn a blind eye to such behavior? As with so many other instances of reprehensible human conduct, the culprit lurking behind the curtain is Greed. Because the largest expense of a nursing home's budget is "labor," corporate executives at these companies have learned that one surefire way to increase the profitability of their homes is to reduce costs by cutting back on staff and hiring individuals who are willing to accept lower wages. The end result? Profits up! Patient welfare down, forgotten, ignored, and suffering.

Undoubtedly, most Americans with family members in nursing homes have no idea that this is happening, and truly believe that their loved ones are being treated well. They have no idea that behind the reassuring advertisements and sophisticated marketing are profit-driven enterprises who often care more about the bottom line than they do about the welfare of seniors. They are unaware that these business often take advantage of programs like the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, which incentivizes the hiring of certain "target groups," including convicted felons. By hiring hard to emply ex-cons, nursing home operators get a "two-fer": tax credits that improve the bottom line, and lower paid employees (which produces the same result).

One possible reason for such widespread ignorance is that, quite simply, there is very little media coverage of elder abuse (the New York Times being a notable exception). Aside from the occasional headline-grabbing report like the one recently issued, the subject is largely ignored. Perhaps that's because much of it goes on behind the closed doors of nursing homes. Perhaps it's because our culture is obsessed with youth and no one wants to contemplate getting old. Or perhaps it's because we simply devalue the elderly?after all, many of them have substantially degraded mental and physical abilities.

It's not difficult to feel concern for the welfare of our children. They represent the next generation, and are full of potential for the future, and we'll stop at nothing to ensure that these children and grandchildren are protected and provided for. Meanwhile, America's Greatest Generation has been largely forgotten, and is often being left unwittingly in the hands of predators who abuse or exploit them.

If compassion for the plight of our elderly loved ones is not enough to spur us to action, then perhaps the thought of our own elder-years might prompt a call for change. It's high time that the American people wake up to the implications of what it means to become a mass geriatric society, which is where what we are rapidly becoming. Individuals need to prepare now for the years when they will live in decline. Families must prepare to assume a greater role in caring for their aging loved ones, and our churches must acknowledge that the elderly are part of the "least among us" and reach out to lend a helping hand. On the legal side of the equation, government needs to begin protecting our elderly citizens by instituting the same safeguards afforded to children and ensuring that predatory nursing homes are not selling out the care of the elderly to the lowest bidder.

We can, and must, do better.

Ken Connor

Ken Connor is Chairman of the Center for a Just Society in Washington, DC.