Most people who admit a loved one into a nursing home do so because the senior requires constant care that they are not able to personally provide. The nursing home undertakes this responsibility, which includes supervising and ensuring that the resident does not put him or herself in a dangerous situation. Nonetheless, many residents manage to wander or “elope” from the nursing home grounds, which often puts them at high risk for injury, attack, exposure, and even death.
Even though often used interchangeably in the nursing home industry, “elopement” and wandering are slightly different. Elopement occurs when a resident who is unable to protect him or herself goes off nursing home grounds unsupervised and encounters some form of harm or danger. Wandering occurs when a resident with dementia, Alzheimer‘s, or other psychiatric diagnosis encounters a dangerous situation while moving around the nursing home facility unsupervised.
There is no single set of characteristics that indicate that a nursing home resident is at risk for wandering or elopement. However, there are several factors that a nursing home must take into account when assessing a resident‘s risk for eloping or wandering. The resident‘s age and mobility should always be considered. It is more likely for a highly mobile, younger resident to elope or wander than it is for a resident who is recovering from hip surgery. It is also more likely for a resident with dementia or other psychiatric diagnosis to stroll off and put him or herself in harm‘s way. Also, previous incidents involving wandering or eloping can be indicators that the resident is prone to doing it again.
If a patient is at a high risk for wandering or elopement–say because she suffers from dementia, has no mobility issues, and has eloped or wandered several times in the past–the nursing home may be required to assess this risk and formulate a plan to prevent it. Under the federal Nursing Home Reform Act (Act), 42 USC § 1395I-3, a nursing facility is required to conduct an initial assessment of a resident‘s capabilities, medical issues, and needs within a few days of admission. If the patient is at a high risk for wandering or elopement, this should be noted on the initial assessment. Based on the assessment, nursing facilities are required to formulate a comprehensive care plan after the assessment is finalized. Subsequent assessments should be conducted annually and immediately after there is a significant change in the mental or physical condition of the resident. An episode of elopement or wandering that has resulted in an injury or a high risk of an injury for the patient should prompt an assessment and a new care plan that ensures that the patient does not repeat his or her actions.
Recurring incidences of elopement or wandering resulting in a resident‘s injury or death may signal nursing home neglect and/or abuse. Wandering and elopement should generally not occur, and when it does, should be detected early enough to avoid injury to the resident if the nursing home follows certain principles and procedures. These include hiring the adequate staff to supervise all of the nursing home residents; train staff properly on supervising residents; install alarms, cameras, and other surveillance devices at exits and entrances as well as near restricted or dangerous locations; adequately assess the risk for elopement or wandering of each individual resident; and having a quick-response plan in place.
While it is true that nursing homes must walk a fine line between not severely restricting residents‘ freedom of movement and keeping them safe, it is the nature of the care that they offer and something that should always be a priority for staff and administrators. Failure to properly guard against wandering and elopement may constitute neglect on the part of the nursing home. In cases where the patient is injured, this neglect may give rise to a personal injury claim.
If you loved one has been seriously injured as a result of wandering or elopement in a nursing home, it is important to contact an experienced personal injury law attorney right away to fully protect the rights and safety of your loved one.
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