Elopement: A Life-Threatening Nursing Home Problem

Elopement in nursing home facility.

Caring for a loved one as they age can be overwhelming. You may not have the time and skills necessary to ensure your family member receives the level of care they need.

This is especially true for elderly people who require constant supervision due to an underlying cognitive condition such as dementia. Care through nursing homes is commonly required in this instance. While nursing homes take the care of your loved ones seriously, underlying problems at these facilities can mean residents fall through the cracks.

Without proper supervision, residents may be prone to wandering or eloping. Their absence may go unnoticed for hours and could result in severe injury or harm to your loved one. This and other forms of neglect are considered elder abuse.

While you may feel powerless, there are steps you can take to protect your loved one and seek justice if the worst happens. A nursing home lawyer understands elder abuse issues like elopement and fights on your loved one’s behalf.

What is Elopement in a Nursing Home?

Elopement in nursing homes is the act of a resident suffering from cognitive impairment wandering outside the facility unsupervised, without the staff noticing. This includes patients with forms of dementia and Alzheimer’s. It is extremely dangerous because these residents cannot protect themselves from injury or harm.

Elopement occurs when nursing homes fail to provide adequate care due to improper nursing home elopement policies, understaffing, and other procedural issues. Nursing homes may know which residents are more at risk of eloping because of their cognitive status but fail to take the needed precautions to keep their patients safe.

Residents prone to wandering within the nursing home may be at a higher risk for elopement incidents.

Difference Between Wandering and Elopement

Wandering happens when residents with cognitive or neurological conditions move through their nursing home facility without reason or awareness of their personal safety. Unlike elopement, these residents do not venture outside or leave the facility’s grounds.

Wandering residents in a nursing home are at risk of injury or harm because they are unsupervised. Staff may not realize they wandered, and it can take several hours to notice a problem and find the resident. It’s estimated that one in five people with dementia wander and that 72% of people who elope attempt to do it again.

Why Nursing Home Residents Elope

Residents with cognitive impairments may believe they have somewhere else they need to be or have to accomplish a routine task from their past. This may include thinking they need to feed a pet or check on a family member. Memories from their past trigger an urgent need to take action, and often, residents wander in response.

Wandering and elopement can also result from changes to the resident’s medications or intense emotions following changes in their lives. This includes residents who are unhappy or overwhelmed by their move into a new living arrangement.

Wandering can also happen unintentionally when cognitively impaired residents are left unsupervised. Residents may use the bathroom, forget where they are, and start exploring the facility or attempting to exit the grounds.

Understaffing issues and visitor guidelines due to COVID-19 may result in residents being under less supervision. These visitor restrictions can lead to confusion and agitation about where their friends or family are.

This may increase incidents of wandering or elopement as residents have more opportunities to slip through without staff noticing. Residents with no history of wandering may start if they are trying to find loved ones.

Which Residents are at Risk of Elderly Elopement?

While residents with dementia and cognitive conditions may be more likely to experience wandering and elopement than others, all nursing home residents are at risk for this behavior. Residents with sleep disorders, those who experience high levels of stress or anxiety, and those with aggressive tendencies are also prone to wandering and elopement.

The least likely to wander are residents with physical conditions that affect their mobility. Residents with full mobility to walk who also suffer from impaired cognitive function are most at risk for elopement incidents. If your elderly loved one has a history of wandering or elopement, it’s crucial to inform the nursing home and staff members so they can be monitored more closely.

Resources are also available to help predict which nursing home residents are more likely to wander. The Cohen-Mansfield Agitation Inventory uses 29 related behaviors in their rating scale to assess agitation. Institutionalized elderly adults may be more likely to experience and exhibit signs of irritability. This includes being physically aggressive, verbally agitated, and non-aggressive physical agitation such as wandering or elopement.

The Consequences of Eloping

Residents who wander or elope are prone to injuries. Nursing home elopements that are noticed quickly and resolved may not result in injuries or other harm to the resident. But when the resident’s departure goes unnoticed for more extended periods, they can face life-threatening consequences.

Eloping residents may experience falls and other injuries common to nursing home residents. This includes broken bones, dislocations, and lacerations to various parts of their body.

Residents who leave the facility also face dangers from the environment. They may not be dressed appropriately for the weather conditions and suffer from hypothermia in cold weather. If they leave the facility without water in high temperatures, they may develop dehydration, heat exhaustion, or heat stroke.

There are also dangers from vehicles in traffic and environmental hazards such as ponds or rivers. Residents risk serious injury or death if they’re hit by a car and may drown if they stumble into a body of water. The consequences of eloping are life-threatening, which is why nursing homes need to take precautions to prevent this behavior.

Training Staff

Nursing home staff must be trained in wandering and elopement procedures to keep residents safe. Training teaches them key signs to look for and how they can stay vigilant while doing their job. Preventing elopement requires knowing the day-to-day activities and movement of the residents they’re responsible for so they notice changes in their routine.

Understanding the Needs of Residents

Nurses and other staff members need to be aware of their patients’ mental and physical conditions. They should understand that residents with cognitive conditions must be monitored more closely. Staff can use tools to assess the risk of elopement and may need to provide additional supervision to their patients who are at high risk.

The nursing home also needs enough staff to take care of residents safely. Chronic understaffing of nursing homes happens due to staff turnover rates, outbreaks of COVID-19, and other issues.

An understaffed nursing home can’t meet all the needs of its residents. Employees become overworked and prone to making mistakes or foregoing full care. Nursing home understaffing contributes to wandering, elopement, and elder abuse.

Installing Alarm or Monitoring Systems

Nursing home facilities can be made safer for patients. Exits and doors that residents do not typically use should remain locked at all times or be equipped with an alarm. This helps keep residents from wandering off unnoticed.

Maintaining these alarm systems is also important because residents can slip away if an alarm isn’t working correctly. Staff should always respond promptly to door alarms to prevent elopement.

Facilities should also keep windows closed and locked to prevent residents from using them to exit, resulting in injuries. All main building entries and exits that aren’t alarmed should have staff monitoring them. Nursing homes may want to install video surveillance systems at the main entry and exit points as part of their monitoring.

Elopement: Is it Nursing Home Neglect?

If the nursing home facility or staff members fail to take the necessary action to prevent residents from wandering or eloping, it is considered nursing home negligence. This includes not having alarms on unlocked doors or if the door alarms are malfunctioning.

It is also considered negligence if staff members do not act in a reasonable amount of time after a door alarm goes off.

Any action or inaction they take that contributes to wandering or eloping by residents is neglect. Nursing home neglect and abuse are serious offenses. Nursing home facilities and staff are subject to laws and regulations they must follow to keep residents safe and uphold the expected standard of care.

If a nursing home resident is injured or dies due to negligence, legal action is necessary. The resident’s family members might file a lawsuit against nursing home staff members or the facility if their loved one’s elopement was caused by neglect.

Actions You Can Take

You can reduce the risk of nursing home neglect or elopement by visiting your elderly loved one regularly. This allows you to check their overall wellbeing in person and note any signs of abuse or neglect. You may pick up on cognitive or emotional changes that make them more prone to elopement and inform the staff.

Visiting also allows you to see if your loved one is getting the proper care and treatment they need. Even if you can’t visit your loved one in person regularly, there are steps you can take to check in with them to keep them safe.

This may include video chats through computers or smartphones or communicating by letter if your loved one has hearing difficulties. Letters can be handwritten or typed in large, easy-to-read fonts depending on their needs and preferences. This keeps the line of communication open and allows you to notice any change in their condition..

Get Legal Help if You Suspect Neglect

If you suspect nursing home neglect is occurring or if the worst happens and your loved one has eloped, contact a lawyer immediately. Consider hiring a law firm with a comprehensive understanding of elder abuse, Berberian Ain Attorneys at Law.

Our nursing home neglect attorneys are experienced in handling these emotionally challenging cases. We treat our clients with compassion and guide them through every step of the legal process.

Our legal team uses our extensive knowledge to protect your loved ones and seek justice on their behalf. We serve clients throughout California, including Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. Contact us today for a free consultation of your nursing home neglect case.