Long-term care complaints rise during pandemic

Wheelchairs sit in a hallway at a care facility
Wheelchairs sit in a hallway at a long-term care facility. The state ombudsman for long-term care says widespread labor shortages in the industry can lead to abuse and neglect.
Steve Mullis | MPR News 2009

Between the first and second year of the pandemic, complaints against long-term care facilities increased, according to a state watchdog.

In a Senate hearing, state ombudsman for long-term care Cheryl Hennen said her office has seen a steep rise in sexual abuse complaints within long-term care facilities between 2020 and 2021 — from nine complaints to 19. 

Other abuses — like financial exploitation and neglect — rose, too, but not by as much, while physical abuse complaints are down slightly. 

Hennen noted that her office suspended in-person visits to facilities during 2020 due to the pandemic. 

"But it is important to note that these statistics may underestimate the actual abuse statistics because we were not able to be in person,” she said. 

The long-term care industry is suffering from widespread labor shortages — a challenge prior to the pandemic, but spurred on by disruptions in the workforce directly related to it.

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Hennen said that labor shortages in long-term care can lead to abuse and neglect. 

She described a nursing home resident with an amputated leg who needs help getting to the bathroom. 

"When he calls, he can wait for up to three hours. Sometimes he sits on the toilet so long awaiting a response to his call that he starts banging on the walls or grab bars for help,” she said, adding that she had permission to use the resident’s story at the hearing. “He says there simply are no staff."

State and federal leaders say they're looking for solutions, but some facilities have closed in the meantime because they can't find workers, leading to displacement of residents. That includes 10 group home facilities in southeast Minnesota that serve adults with disabilities.