If you're wondering what the government is doing about this, CBS News Correspondent Vince Gonzales reports the answer is: not nearly enough.
A distress call came from a frightened family.
"I was told you could be helpful to me, and I'm really anxious to talk to you," said a voice on Ila Swan's answering machine.
It's a call to action for Swan of the Association for Protection of the Elderly.
"I went through it with my mother, and nobody was there to help me," Swan explains. Outraged by the harm a nursing home did to her mother, she is now a wig-wearing crusader who goes undercover and looks for signs of abuse and neglect for others - for free.
Families contact her because, it seems, no one else is listening.
Swan reports her findings to the families and files reports with state regulators who routinely dismiss them.
"You try the system," she says. "The system's broken. It's well known the system's broken."
In a series of reports, government investigators reached the same conclusion - that the state and federal system is "inadequate to protect residents."
Well, what about the police?
"You can't get the police to come in there. Their jurisdiction, as far as I have seen, stops at the front door of the nursing home," Swan says.
Police did investigate Martha Merritt's death. They had to. The coroner ruled the nursing home resident's death was "homicide," that she was "assaulted by another person." Police found an eyewitness. They had a suspect who worked at the nursing home. But the district attorney refused to file any charges.
"I don't think that they really care about elderly people," says Donna Geise, Meritt's daughter.
"I'd say elder abuse today is where domestic abuse was about five years ago. Investigations and prosecutions and convictions of domestic abuse five years ago were few and far between," says elder abuse investigator Paul Hodge.
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It's hard for the law to ignore evidence of abuse on videotape. One victim was 99 years old, paralyzed and unable to speak. The certified nurse's assistant got six months in jail and lost her license. Nationwide advocates for the elderly are pressing to get video cameras into nursing homes.
Swan says of all the homes she had been in (close to 600), she would only put one of her loved ones in about six of them.
"I don't agree with that. The vast majority of providers in our country deliver high-quality care," says Charles Roadman of the America Health Care Association.
How do you find the good homes? Swan says take the tour, then return unannounced.
"What you want to do is go back and see what the patients look like. Are they well kept? Is their hair combed?" Swan advises.
Also watch the staff. Are they overwhelmed? Check recent inspection reports. And if a family member is in a home, visit often and not always at the same time.
The number of nursing home residents will double in the next 20 years. And millions of aging baby boomers probably will want the system to be fixed before that.