A Right to Dignity

``NURSING home'' is a caring term with a long history of struggling to live up to its promise. During the past decade, that ideal has been tarnished as reports of abuse and neglect have proliferated. One study by a researcher at the University of New Hampshire found that more than a third of nursing home aides and nurses had witnessed at least one act of physical abuse during the previous year. Four-fifths had seen cases of psychological abuse. Now a verdict in Mississippi offers hope that conditions in some nursing homes may begin to improve. A federal jury in Jackson, Miss., has awarded $250,000 to each of two families whose relatives were subjected to beatings, oversedation, and excessive restraints while they were patients at a nursing home in McComb, Miss., during the mid-1980s. The facility is one of more than 800 nursing homes operated by Beverly Enterprises, the largest such chain in the nation.

Advocates for the elderly see the cases as important because they involve the kind of routine abuse and neglect that affects thousands of nursing home patients daily - people who usually have no way to make themselves heard, or whose complaints are not taken seriously.

The jury assigned a monetary value to the various types of neglect the residents, now deceased, were forced to endure: $25,000 for verbally abusing a female patient, $15,000 for not bathing a male patient, $60,000 for failing to give him physical therapy, and $15,000 for leaving him in a smelly room.

It is impossible to put a price tag on human dignity. But by assigning a dollar amount, however arbitrary, to the indignities these residents experienced, the jury is sending a message to nursing homes everywhere that inhumane treatment is intolerable - and punishable.

Where poor care exists in nursing homes, it often stems from staffing problems. Efforts to provide consistently good care can be undermined by high turnover, low wages, and minimal training. At the same time, nursing home employees face the challenge of working under what Jack Harang, the lawyer who brought the suits against Beverly Enterprises, has called ``maximum stress conditions.''

The Mississippi cases are now under appeal. But if the verdicts are upheld, they could mark the beginning of a new emphasis on caregiving - an essential activity that routinely rates a low priority in this country. At a time when right-to-die issues are making headlines daily, these cases also serve as useful reminders that the right to live in dignity never changes, regardless of a person's age or condition.

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