How to Ensure Your Loved One is Safe in a Nursing Home

Turning the care of a loved one over to strangers can be a scary step. However, there is much you can do to ensure the continued safety and well-being of your loved one, even if you have to make the difficult choice to place them in a nursing home.

Just because your parents or other loved ones require more care than you are able to provide on a daily basis, doesn’t mean they don’t need you. You still have a role to play as their primary caregiver and advocate, even if you’re not there every hour of every day.

Here are some keys to ensuring your loved one remains safe and secure in a nursing home.

Keep your eyes, ears and nose open

It’s important to thoroughly vet any facility you are considering for the care of your loved one, but your diligence doesn’t end after the sales pitch.  Not only should you pay attention to the state of affairs before committing to a facility, but you also need to keep an eye (and nose!) on things after your loved one moves in.

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The best time to visit?

See what’s really happening by dropping in after dinner on a Saturday evening. There is typically less staff, nursing home residents have finished dinner, and no one is expecting an onslaught of visits from friends and family.

And don’t forget to keep your nose open; while there are some funky odors that are inevitable, the persistent scent of urine or ammonia is not a good sign. You also want to listen to how staff members talk to the nursing home residents. They should address residents respectfully, using their names or “Mr.” and “Mrs.,” rather than pet names or terms, like “Mama” or “Grandpa.”

Look for red flags

Any change in personality, mood, sleeping or eating habits, or physical activity should be investigated. Not all signs of abuse show up as bruises or bedsores, although any sign of either should be reported immediately. If your loved one seems depressed, fearful or lethargic, you need to take immediate action and talk to the unit supervisor or head nurse.

Don’t be afraid to ask your loved one if something is making them uncomfortable, but understand they may be afraid to tell the truth for fear of retribution. You may need to be prepared to move them immediately if abuse is discovered. Any financial changes in their accounts, such as unexpected large withdrawals, should also be investigated. In fact, it may be best to appoint a family member as power of attorney and establish a protocol that requires their approval for any financial transactions.

Stay in touch

One of the best ways to ensure your loved one is receiving the care they deserve is to visit often. If you can’t stop by every day, make sure you pop in several times per week and keep your visits unscheduled and at different times of day. Not only does this allow you to stay on top of how your loved one is being treated even when the staff doesn’t expect you, it also affords you the opportunity to be a bright spot in your loved one’s day. You can bring a favorite treat, book or photo album and spend time enjoying each other’s company. One of the benefits of no longer being a full-time caregiver is the luxury of spending stress-free, relaxed time with your loved one where you can really connect.

Staying in touch during COVID-19

About 40% of coronavirus-related deaths have been from long-term care facility employees and residents.1 With such a wide-spread impact, worrying about your loved one is understandable. But if they’re currently in a nursing home, respect the health guidelines by avoiding visits unless absolutely necessary. Ask staff at their facility what’s being done to contain the virus and quarantine those affected.And while you may want to see your loved ones in person, it’s not recommended. Instead of in-person visits, try the following:

  • Write them a letter.
  • Enlist family members to send them notes or drawings.
  • Send them art, books, music, or magazines.
  • Send them activity books or stationery.
  • Call the nursing home when you’d otherwise visit. Chances are you can speak to your loved one on the phone.

Check out our full guide for more tips on caring for seniors during the pandemic.

Know who to talk to

If you do notice something that concerns you, make sure you go through the proper channels to get to the bottom of the situation or make sure the deficiency is addressed. You typically want to start with the unit manager on your loved one’s floor. They should be the most in tune with both the staff and residents and will be able to investigate and take proper action most expediently.

If you don’t get the results you want from that conversation, it’s time to start moving up the chain of command. The facility should have a formal grievance or complaint process that you should follow if a problem becomes persistent, and that policy should ensure that your concern is addressed within a quick timeframe, usually within 48 hours. If you are still displeased, pull out the big guns and contact the nursing home administrator directly. And if that doesn’t do the trick, you may want to contact the nursing home regulatory agency in your state to file a complaint.

Nursing home care FAQ

Nursing homes have been hit especially hard during the coronavirus outbreak, but thankfully, these facilities have protocols in place to keep residents safe. The CDC has issued guidelines for training care providers, educating families, and reporting cases. 

While it may be hard, refrain from visiting your loved ones in person during the coronavirus outbreak. Nursing homes host a large number of vulnerable people in close quarters, and outside visitors can put them at risk of infection. Encourage them to communicate in alternative ways like video chat, phone calls, or letters.

Regular handwashing, wearing a mask, and following facility guidelines are also important for keeping your loved one safe. Be patient if they’re resistant to changing and explain to them why these measures are so important. A few changes can keep them happier and healthier longer. 

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) lists these as the biggest hazards in a nursing home.2

  • Musculoskeletal disorders
  • Bloodborne pathogens and needlesticks
  • Tuberculosis 
  • Workplace violence
  • Slips, trips, and falls
  • Methicilin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)
  • Chemicals and hazardous drugs 

As often as you can (when it’s not risky). Encourage all their friends and family within visiting distance to stop by too. It can take some time to adjust to the schedule set by their new facility and familiar faces can make the transition easier. And after all, who wouldn’t want to see their friends, kids, or grandkids?

Related pages on SafeWise

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Rebecca Edwards
Written by
Rebecca Edwards
Rebecca is the lead safety reporter and in-house expert for She has been a journalist and blogger for over 25 years, with a focus on home and community safety for the past eight. Rebecca spends dozens of hours every month poring over crime reports and spotting trends. Her safety expertise is sought after by publications, broadcast journalists, non-profit organizations, podcasts, and more. You can find her expert advice and analysis in places like TechCrunch, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Miami Herald, NPR, HGTV, MSN, Reader's Digest, Real Simple, and an ever-growing library of radio and TV clips.

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