Moving your parent into a nursing home or assisted living facility is stressful enough. But what if they start to call you with complaints about the service or care they are receiving?

When this happens, you should know how to figure out and handle senior housing complaints that are simple nuisances–and those that require immediate intervention.

A Serious Elder Care Problem–or Just an Annoyance?

Before you file a complaint with officials, first visit your loved one and investigate the problem yourself. It’s your duty to figure out how bad the problem is and how far you need to take your complaint. Some common grievances from seniors often include the following:

  • “Stolen” items, which may just be misplaced

  • Dislike of meals

  • Dislike of roommate

  • Dislike of a particular caregiver

In these cases, the problem can probably be amended with ease. Have your loved one start labeling items, take pictures of them and tell the staff what’s missing. Talk with a dietician about meals and see if you can order off the menu or start bringing in food. Request a room change for problematic roommates. If your loved one dislikes a caregiver, talk with the person in question and see what can be done to make your loved one more comfortable.

Also be on the lookout for more serious problems of neglect and abuse. Look for and record signs of abuse with photo or video. Signs include these red flags:

  • Bruising

  • Bed sores

  • Dirty clothes/poor hygiene

  • Cluttered or dirty rooms

  • Unusual changes in mood, such as depression and anxiety, withdrawal from normal activities and a fearful demeanor

  • Weight loss

Financial abuse is another type of elder abuse. If you have access to your loved one’s bank account or can review their bills, do so and look for any strange charges.

Use a Long-Term Care Ombudsman

Long-term care ombudsmen are government employees who advocate for the rights of residents in long-term care and assisted-living facilities. They can help resolve conflicts with a wide range of grievances, including problems with meals, activities, roommates and quality of care.

They can also assist you with problems related to abuse or neglect. Their services are provided by the state.

Check the Senior Living Facility Lease

If the problem is bad enough that you are going to seek damages or look to sue the facility, first check the lease.

Some nursing homes and assisted living facilities have arbitration clauses worked into the lease. If this is the case, it means you or your loved one has waived the right to go to court and must seek recourse through mandatory arbitration. While this means you can–and should–have a lawyer, the process is different than going to court.

In short, arbitration is a process where one or more arbiters hear testimony, evidence and argument from both parties before make a ruling. Most arbitrations are binding agreements, meaning they are enforceable by law and are difficult to overturn.

Where to File a Complaint

Places where you can lodge a serious complaint can include these state resources:

  • Attorney general’s office

  • Department of health

  • Adult protective services department

  • Office of elderly affairs

  • Department of aging

  • Long-term care ombudsman

An easy way to get this information is to visit the Administration on Aging’s National Center on Elder Abuse state resources webpage. Click the state of the nursing home and contact the agencies provided.

Some states have a direct hotline for elder abuse reporting in senior housing. Other states have an official complaint form for you to fill out, usually located on your state’s department of health’s website.