What is Malnourishment?
Malnourishment is a state of deficiency that occurs when individuals are not receiving a properly balanced diet that provides a complete set of nutrients for healthy functioning. Malnourishment can stem from a variety of factors, such as a failure on the part of the staff to give residents the right portion sizes, allowing the residents to reject food without providing nutritious alternatives, not watching the resident consume their food or missing changes in health conditions that might necessitate a change in diet to stay healthy.
In addition, it can be more difficult to give nursing home residents proper and balanced nutrition because of issues that they may have with chewing, swallowing, digestive troubles, or feeding themselves. All of these conditions provide challenges to nursing homes, which must create comprehensive and individualized plans for each of their residents to ensure that they are receiving proper nutrition. It takes substantial time and attention to ensure that each resident has taken in the food they need to properly nourish them, and nursing homes which are short staffed may not be able to take the time to monitor this process sufficiently.
Malnourishment is a particularly destructive and pervasive problem in nursing homes because it can be difficult to catch but have serious consequences for a resident's physical and psychological health. Some sources estimate that up to a third of long term care facility residents suffer from malnutrition or dehydration.
Signs of Malnourishment
Although the nursing home should be trained in preventing, noticing, and treating malnourishment, sometimes facilities do not effectively do so. Untrained staff may miss the physical and behavioral signs of malnourishment that may signal more severe health concerns. If you suspect that your loved one may not be sufficiently cared for because they are not receiving proper nutrition, you may notice the following signs:
- Weight loss, either sudden or gradual
- Fatigue, irritability, dizziness, and confusion
- Depression or social withdrawal and lack of interest in activities that were formerly enjoyed
- Mental decline and memory loss
- Swollen and/or bleeding gums
- Fragile or easily breakable bones, muscle loss, and general weakness
- Decreased organ function
- Bloated abdomen
- Dry skin, brittle nails, or hair loss
- Tooth decay
- Slow deterioration of health which is not linked to any specific health condition
- Unexplained injuries or wounds that heal unnaturally slowly
- Red, glassy, or swollen eyes or loss of vision
If malnutrition is addressed once its symptoms are first observed, its effects can be mitigated through careful supervision and proper nutritional guidance. A doctor and/or a nutritionist should be consulted if a resident's diet results in one or more of the symptoms on this list. If malnourishment is not promptly addressed, the situation may quickly deteriorate and cause lasting, even fatal consequences.
Consequences of Malnourishment
Elderly people can be particularly susceptible to changes in their diet or lack of nutrition because of pre-existing health problems, which malnourishment can exacerbate. When the body is not given enough nutrients, it may begin to survive off of fats within itself, causing weight loss and a general lack of energy to repair cells and perform basic metabolic functions. After a period of time, malnourishment can lead to a whole host of medical complications, such as
- Immobilization and bedsores
- Renal (kidney) failure
- Incontinence and increased dependence on nursing home staff
- Increased likelihood of falls and fractures
- Slowly healing wounds and/or bruises
- Lack of interest in food, which can worsen the condition.
Most alarmingly, lack of nutrition means that the individual's immune system is not properly fed. The immune system is responsible for fighting off infections and diseases, and if it is not functioning properly, the victim is more likely to succumb to diseases like pneumonia or influenza, which can be deadly.
Dehydration in Nursing Homes
Another issue related to malnourishment in nursing homes is dehydration. Unlike malnourishment, a lack of water can kill someone in a matter of days, if not hours under certain conditions. Access to water is extremely important, but, additionally, nursing home staff should make sure that patients are actually drinking enough. Sometimes, due to health conditions, drinking water can be an unpleasant experience for elderly residents, and they may need to be encouraged to take in water, watched, or given intravenous fluids if their condition worsens. Signs of dehydration include:
- Thirst and dry mouth
- Dark colored and particularly pungent urine
- Flushed or dry skin, inability to sweat
- Loss of appetite
- Chills, dizziness, confusion, or fatigue
- Low blood pressure
In some severe cases, prolonged dehydration can lead to a condition called hypernatremia, in which sodium levels in the blood are too high. This condition increases the risk of death from other health issues and may require hospitalization if the facility is not equipped to treat it. Nursing homes should emphasize to their staff how important it is to properly hydrate their residents, which may involve direct observation and notation of their water intake.
Litigating Malnourishment in Maryland and Pennsylvania
Malnourishment is a particularly disturbing issue in nursing homes because it calls the facility's basic standard of care into question. At the very least, we expect long-term care facilities to provide fundamental food, water, and shelter necessities. It is natural to ask, what if my loved one is not even receiving proper nutrition, what else might be happening without supervision at their home? You can ask your loved one what they are being fed and compare this to orders given by a doctor or nutritionist, but, in the end, unless you are watching your loved one frequently during mealtimes, it is difficult to know the true nature of the situation.
An elder abuse lawyer can help you take meaningful action to investigate and remedy any mistreatment that your loved one may be experiencing in their nursing home. Charles Gilman and Briggs Bedigian will work with you to understand your concerns, investigate the nursing home for abuse or neglect of all kinds, and file a lawsuit on your behalf if the situation demands such action. Call them today at 800.529.6162 for a free consultation on your case or contact them online to get started.