Chicago Ivory Jackson had Alzheimer’s, but that wasn’t what killed him. At 77, he was smashed in the face with a clock radio as he lay in his nursing home bed.
Jackson’s roommate — a mentally ill man nearly 30 years younger — was arrested and charged with the killing. Police found him sitting next to the nurse’s station, blood on his hands, clothes and shoes. Inside their room, the ceiling was spattered with blood.
“Why didn’t they do what they needed to do to protect my dad?” wondered Jackson’s stepson, Russell Smith.
Over the past several years, nursing homes have become dumping grounds for young and middle-age people with mental illness, according to Associated Press interviews and an analysis of data from all 50 states. And that has proved a prescription for violence, as Jackson’s case and others across the country illustrate.
Younger, stronger residents with schizophrenia, depression or bipolar disorder are living beside frail senior citizens, and sometimes taking their rage out on them.
“Sadly, we’re seeing the tragic results of the failure of federal and state governments to provide appropriate treatment and housing for those with mental illnesses and to provide a safe environment for the frail elderly,” said Janet Wells, director of public policy for the National Citizens’ Coalition for Nursing Home Reform.
Numbers obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and prepared exclusively for the AP by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services show nearly 125,000 young and middle-aged adults with serious mental illness lived in U.S. nursing homes last year.
That was a 41 percent increase from 2002, when nursing homes housed nearly 89,000 mentally ill people ages 22 to 64. Most states saw increases, with Utah, Nevada, Missouri, Alabama and Texas showing the steepest climbs.
Younger mentally ill people now make up more than 9 percent of the nation’s nearly 1.4 million nursing home residents, up from 6 percent in 2002.
Several forces are behind the trend, among them: the closing of state mental institutions and a shortage of hospital psychiatric beds. Also, nursing homes have beds to fill because today’s elderly are healthier than the generation before them and are more independent and more likely to stay in their homes.
No government agency keeps count of killings or serious assaults committed by the mentally ill against the elderly in nursing homes.
Under federal law, nursing homes are barred from admitting a mentally ill patient unless the state has determined that the person needs the high level of care a nursing home can provide. States are responsible for doing the screening. Also, federal law guarantees nursing home residents the right to be free from physical abuse.
Families have sued in hopes of forcing states to change their practices and pressuring nursing homes to prevent assaults. Advocates say many mentally ill people in nursing homes could live in apartments if they got help taking their medication and managing their lives.
The problem has its roots in the 1960s, when deplorable conditions, improved drug treatments and civil rights lawsuits led officials to close many state mental hospitals. As a result, some states have come to rely largely on nursing homes to care for mentally ill people of all ages.