The Rights of Impaired Elders

As people become elderly, the goal to remain independent can become quite a struggle. However, laws passed in recent years support older citizens' rights to maintain that independence and to accommodate their needs.

The federal Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 allows disabled renters to install devices in their homes to meet their needs. These devices may include roll-under sinks to accommodate wheelchairs, grab bars on bathtubs, or flashing lights for doorbells. The renter pays for these alterations to the apartment and may have to pay the cost of removing the devices if he or she moves.

The Fair Housing Act also requires all new construction of multi-family housing to be easily modified to meet such needs and its public areas be accessible to wheelchairs.

The needs of the mentally ill or impaired are also addressed by the law. A landlord cannot refuse to rent an apartment to someone who has a mentally ill person living with them like an Alzheimer's patient.

For those elderly persons who do live in nursing homes, their levels of independence may have decreased, but they still retain all of their civil rights. These include the right to make their own medical care decisions, have visitors, practice their own religion, seek legal counsel, vote, leave the nursing home when they choose, see a doctor when they ask, and manage their money. The facility cannot deny residents these rights.

"Nursing home" is a general term applied to facilities providing varying levels of custodial or nursing care. Usually the term refers to a facility licensed as "board and care." These nursing homes provide room and board and assistance with feeding, personal care, dressing, and similar needs.

A ongoing concern of the elderly and their family members is the level of care provided by nursing homes and other skilled nursing care facilities. Regulation in recent years has improved the situation, but unlicensed nursing homes still exist. Even among licensed facilities, the range of care can vary widely. Thoroughly research the nursing homes in the area before selecting one for yourself or a loved one.

Federal law provides for a contact person in each state to receive and investigate nursing home complaints or concerns about level of care. Each nursing home should have information posted on how to notify this person. Your local or state agency on aging is another source of information and support.