Advice & Information

The dangers of choking to death in care homes

Date: January 22, 2019 by idu-net

The decision to entrust a loved one to the care of others is never an easy one to make.  Moving a relative into a residential care home or a nursing home can be a difficult and emotional experience.  The state of your relative’s health means that this decision may well be taken out of your hands.

Whatever the arrangements you may have in place, you will want to ensure your relative receives good quality care and that they will be happy and comfortable.  Given the seemingly constant press reports of care home abuse and neglect, it is sometimes difficult to be certain that will be the case.

Recent figures show that a shocking number of old people are choking to death in care homes. Data from the Office for National Statistics reveals that over the three years from 2014 to 2016 an average of 26 elderly people a year died directly from choking and a further 42 from related incidents.

A second set of figures including episodes  where choking played a part in reported deaths, suggests that nearly six care home residents die from a choking related incidents every month – making choking  the biggest preventable death in the adult care sector.  The actual number may be even higher. When a patient’s airway becomes blocked while eating, this commonly leads to fatal cardiac arrest or lack of oxygen to the brain. Both are often listed on a death certificate as the cause of death instead of choking itself.

Older people are at risk of choking if they lose the swallowing reflex, as some unfortunately do. That was certainly the case with 68-year-old Jane Olive Parker.  An inquest concluded that Mrs Parker choked to death after being given an inappropriate meal at Fir Trees Care home in Dukinfield, Tameside, Greater Manchester in 2016.

Mrs Parker had dementia and poor mobility. She had moved to Fir Trees in early July 2016 from a previous home, Millbrook, run by the same provider, HC-One.  Prior to her death, she had a number of food-related choking episodes.  She had been admitted to Tameside General Hospital in 2015 after a choking incident involving gammon that she was fortunate to survive.

She was put on a Stage 3 diet (food that is semi-solid, soft or pureed and easily digested) on medical advice.  However, when Mrs Parker was transferred to Fir Trees, staff did not assess her directly, relying instead on the care plan from Millbrook.  Contrary to good practice, no new care plan was put in place and crucially the existing care plan made no mention of the choking episodes and erroneously stated that Mrs Parker should be on a Stage 4 diet.

On 24 August 2016 Mrs Parker was offered a choice of soup or chicken nuggets and chips for her evening meal, served in her bedroom rather than the main dining area. She chose the nuggets and was left to eat unsupervised.  About 40 minutes later care workers discovered Mrs Parker to be unresponsive with a fixed stare. She was pronounced dead less than an hour after being given that evening meal.



The Coroner commented:

‘I am satisfied that Mrs Parker was not consistently given the appropriate food and the appropriate conclusion is that the deceased died from recognised complications from aspiration of food, contributed to by neglect.’

Staff should have known about her diet and should have been aware that her dementia meant that she didn’t have insight into the risks posed by choosing the meal that killed her.  While the verdict of neglect clearly adds weight to any potential civil claim for compensation, like so many others in this tragic position, the family’s motivation is not financial.

Compensation in these cases is never huge and of course it won’t bring back their mother.  What the family want, having got answers to most of the questions they had at inquest, is to make sure that this cannot happen to somebody else’s loved one.’

If you have an elderly or vulnerable relative who has suffered care home abuse or neglect or want help in facing the ordeal of an inquest, visit the IDU Legal website or call the FREE legal helpline on 0333 305 4357 to get a direct link to expert solicitors who can give you advice and assistance.