Published: Jan. 25, 2011

Neglect a ‘very serious problem’ in Michigan nursing homes

Contact(s): Andy Henion Media Communications office: (517) 355-3294 cell: (517) 281-6949, Zhenmei Zhang Sociology office: (517) 355-7545

EAST LANSING, Mich. — More than one in five elderly nursing home residents in Michigan are neglected – a “very serious problem” that calls for changes in care and policy, according to a new study led by Michigan State University researchers.

The study, appearing in the January issue of the Journal of Elder Abuse and Neglect, also argues the most vulnerable residents are most likely to be neglected – including those with severe physical limitations and behavior problems that may stem from an illness such as dementia, said lead researcher Zhenmei Zhang, assistant professor of sociology.

“These nursing home residents are very dependent on their caregivers for food, water and personal hygiene needs,” Zhang said, “and if they are neglected it can lead to serious consequences such as malnutrition, dehydration, bed sores and even early death.”

The study is one of the first to examine risk factors for elder neglect in nursing homes based on a survey of residents’ family members. It found that about 21 percent of residents were neglected at least once in the past year – a number that very likely is an underestimate because family members aren’t aware of all incidents of neglect, Zhang said.

“This is probably the tip of the iceberg,” she said.

The scientific survey was random and anonymous, Zhang said, so participants didn’t have to fear reprisal against their elderly family members.

The study examined cases of physical neglect, in which the caregiver fails or refuses to meet a resident’s needs of food, water, personal hygiene, clothing, medicine, shelter, personal safety and comfort.
Most previous research has lumped neglect with physical and sexual abuse, but Zhang said neglect is a serious enough problem to investigate on its own.

Zhang and her fellow researchers made several suggestions for improvement:

  • A training program should be implemented on the recognition and reporting of neglect in nursing homes. It should address the most common conditions in which neglect occurs and potential consequences such as bed sores, dehydration and death.
  • The needs and physical limitations of new residents should be assessed carefully, with the results and proper guidelines for care made available to staff.
  • Staffers should pay closer attention to victims of resident-to-resident abuse and try to prevent such abuse from occurring. These victims are more likely to be neglected, said Zhang, who is conducting further research into this area.
  • Family members should be educated about neglect so they can better monitor the well-being of their relatives.

The research was funded by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, an arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Zhang’s co-authors include MSU’s Lawrence Schiamberg and Robert Griffore; Lori Post, former MSU researcher now at Yale University; and scholars from The George Morris Centre in Canada, American University, VA Boston Healthcare System and DePaul University.


Michigan State University has been advancing knowledge and transforming lives through innovative teaching, research and outreach for more than 150 years. MSU is known internationally as a major public university with global reach and extraordinary impact. Its 17 degree-granting colleges attract scholars worldwide who are interested in combining education with practical problem solving.