Wandering Nursing Home Residents in Ohio – How Could This Happen?
There might not be a more frightening call for a family to get from a nursing home than this: “We can’t find your mother. She seems to have left the facility.”
One of the main reasons families turn to nursing homes to care for their loved ones is safety. Elderly people with dementia or Alzheimer’s often cannot appreciate danger, so they may wander or leave the facility unsupervised and unnoticed. The facility must act to prevent wandering nursing home residents, in Ohio and around the country.
What is Nursing Home Wandering, Elopement, and Escape?
- Wandering. In people with cognitive impairments, such as dementia or Alzheimer’s, wandering involves moving aimlessly around the facility without awareness of personal safety. For example, residents may leave their rooms, get on an elevator, and travel down to the basement.
- Elopement or escape. Elopement takes residents even further afield — they leave or escape the facility unnoticed and unsupervised.
Both wandering and elopement are real dangers to residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities. It is often difficult to locate residents who have left a nursing home, simply because it is not clear where they are going, or even in which direction they may be headed. As an example, a resident may believe he is returning home after work to take care of his wife and young kids, and not realize that he is recalling a time and place that existed 30 years ago. Sadly, residents can fall down the stairs, walk into traffic, suffer frostbite or heatstroke, or worse.
The news is rife with stories of residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities wandering or escaping, to sad results. The Repository reported that a family in Canton filed a lawsuit after their loved one wandered away from Glenwood Care and Rehabilitation and was found frozen to death next to a dumpster. According to the Akron Beacon Journal, the facility failed to report the Stark County man as missing to his family or police for nearly 12 hours.
This worst-case scenario should NEVER happen, yet it does and it happens often. I have handled many wandering cases and the sad reality is that nursing homes often fail to properly assess residents for elopement risk and fail to put plans in place to prevent wandering. There are also many cases in which facilities do not have buzzers or video cameras in place to monitor if a resident becomes trapped outside and cannot get back in. Facilities know that they have confused and cognitively impaired residents who cannot appreciate danger and need to plan accordingly.
Risk Factors – What Residents are “At-Risk” for Wandering, Elopement, and Escape?
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, six in ten people living with dementia will wander at least once; many do so repeatedly. And those who wander have double the risk of fractures.
Many written tools are available to help a care home assess the degree of risk for each resident. They include the Cohen-Mansfield Agitation Inventory (CMAI) and the Rating Scale for Aggressive Behavior in the Elderly (RAGE).
There are many warning signs and risk factors to indicate that a nursing home or assisted living facility resident might wander or leave the facility:
- New residents are at risk because most wandering and escape occurs within 48 hours of admission
- Residents often announce they are leaving: “I need to go home” or “I need to feed my dog.”
- Agitation or restlessness
- Unsettled standing behavior (e.g., swaying, shifting weight)
- Searching for something
- Disorientation with surroundings
All residents with dementia and Alzheimer’s are an automatic wandering and elopement risk.
Years ago, I investigated the case of an elderly man suffering from on the onset of dementia and Parkinson’s disease. This gentleman was very certain he did not need long term care and told the staff regularly that he was leaving. One day he did just that and walked out the front door of the nursing home. The poorly trained and shorthanded staff did not even know he had left. The family member of another resident, on the way to visit her mother, noticed the man, in pajamas and slippers, walking down the road. It was only after this incident that the nursing home assessed him as a risk and took steps to keep him safer. This scenario often ends in terrible tragedy. It was only luck that intervened in this particular case.
How to Prevent Wandering, Elopement, and Escape? The Duties of Nursing Homes.
Nursing homes present themselves as experts in caring for senior citizens. Their legal and ethical duties are to ensure the proper controls and action plans are in place to create a safe environment.
Nursing home duties pertaining to wandering, elopement, and escape:
- Assess the individual. The best way to prevent a resident from the dangers of wandering or leaving unsupervised is a complete assessment upon admission.
- Create a comprehensive care plan. Once the facility has assessed a resident’s risk, the care team must create a comprehensive care plan that sets forth interventions to minimize the risk of wandering for “at-risk” residents.
- Provide a safe environment. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, “the physical environment should support safe walking and wandering, exploration, social interaction, stimulation (but not overstimulation), and rest.” Non-technological interventions that deal with anxiety or agitation include physical activities that keep residents physically busy and mentally engaged. Security cameras can also be installed in some hallways and other areas where residents should not be roaming.
- Utilize technology-based interventions. Alert bracelets (like Wanderguard) sound an alarm when residents wearing them leave a secured area. Alarms on the doors, windows, and stairwell can trigger a response from the staff. Many facilities lock hallways or memory care wards with doors that require keypad entry.
- Create a missing-person response plan and train staff adequately. Mortality rates increase significantly if the wandering person is not found within 24 hours, so missing-person protocol should be established and drills should be practiced routinely by staff.
Nursing homes must strike a delicate balance between providing a secure and safe home for residents and not restricting their movements so much that they are more like prisoners than residents.
All of these interventions require adequate numbers of staff — highly trained staff. Unfortunately, because this can be a facility’s biggest cost, the staffing budget is often cut to ensure additional profit.
Is a Nursing Home Liable for Wandering, Elopement, or Escape?
In most cases, yes.
Nursing homes must take reasonable precautions to prevent residents from wandering from the building. As noted, security features can (and should) be enabled.
With elopement and escape, it is highly likely that a nursing home will be found to have been negligent if one of the “at-risk” residents simply walks out the door.
As a Nursing Home Wandering Lawyer and Elopement (Nursing Home Escape) Attorney, I Seek Answers, Compensation, and Justice on Behalf Injured Residents and Their Families.
A nursing home must provide a safe and secure environment for its residents and their families. When that trust is broken, you may have recourse.
There is no excuse as to why a resident should ever wander into a non-resident area of a nursing home, or simply walk out of a nursing home facility unnoticed. Families who have had such an incident happen to one of their loved ones want – and deserve – answers. In cases where injury or death has resulted, they also deserve justice and fair compensation.
For more than 30 years, I and my firm have been fighting for residents and families in these cases throughout Ohio. We have handled many nursing home escape, elopement, and wandering cases and would be pleased to speak with you about your options. We take on nursing homes of all sizes, ranging from small, independent facilities to the big corporations that may own dozens or even hundreds of nursing homes.
If a loved one in your family wandered or escaped from a nursing home facility, I invite you to call me for a free consultation to learn about your rights, the rights of your loved one, and the options available for seeking justice. As a nursing home wandering and escape law firm, we accept cases on a contingency fee basis. There is no fee for our firm unless compensation is recovered.