Wandering and Elopement

Wandering is an extremely dangerous situation in which a cognitively impaired individual strays into unsafe territory. This represents a life-threatening risk for the elderly population living with dementia. The most severe, as well as dangerous, form of wandering is known as elopement; wherein individuals wander away from home or a skilled nursing facility.

A decrease in cognitive functioning is a leading cause of wandering and elopement. Caused by impairment in abstract thinking, space relational skills, appropriate judgment, emotional instability, and decreased motor skills. Difficulty relating to their environment as well as unknowingly trespassing into unknown territory can lead to emotional distress as well as interpersonal altercations with strangers.

There are two categories of wandering; goal-directed and non goal-directed. Non-goal-directed wandering is characterized by a short attention span and lack of a specific destination, appearing aimless as to a destination. Conversely, goal-directed wandering is repetitive and the person appears to be searching for something or someone. A goal-directed wanderer may appear to be attempting to leave to perform a task or former job, becoming agitated when interrupted.

A goal-directed wanderer is at high risk of eloping; leaving a safe and supervised area allowing themselves to be placed in harmful, potentially high-risk situations. Elopement presents differently from a non-goal-directed wanderer, as they continuously and relentlessly leave their safe area. This presents risks such as hypothermia and placing themselves in traffic or other dangers if they repeatedly elope outside.

Disorientation and frustration, coupled with the severe anxiety found in those with dementia; compound the risk. Elderly individuals, unable to express their needs or desires, live in fear that increases their propensity to elope. They wish to find answers to questions that they can no longer remember or express. Loss of vision and other sensory perceptions lead to decreased ability to physically navigate the outside world, leaving them susceptible to a host of dangers while wandering/eloping. An increased propensity for falling can cause serious and possibly fatal consequences due to decreased physical stability, fatigue, and anxiety.

For some, wandering can be a positive outlet, providing stimulation, exercise, and a need to continue purposeful behavior. The risk for wandering and elopement is high upon initial admission to a facility; which increases the need for an individual needs assessment upon entrance to any Assisted Living or Nursing Care establishment.

Families that place loved ones into Assisted Living or Nursing Care facilities, may have the belief that their elderly relative is now “safe”. The wandering individual needs vigilant supervision with a treatment plan focusing on communication, modification of the immediate environment, safety, exercise, and activities.

The goal of the care provider is not to restrict movement, but to provide a safe environment for the resident to ‘wander’. Safe walking areas, cognitive stimulation, and a care plan that addresses appropriate levels of sensory stimulation are vital to decreasing the risk of wandering.

If you have seen evidence of your loved one’s wandering or elopement continuing and not being addressed with deep concern, ask to see the environmental care plan. Watch for repeated incidents without a change in the Nursing Home’s strategy to care for your loved one. If your family member is unable to communicate and you notice them pacing or purposely attempting to go outside or to other areas of the facility, ask to see documents regarding past behavior.

It is the job of the Nursing Home to provide individualized treatment concerning the safety and well-being of your loved one. Allowing your loved one to continue wandering behavior is neglect and poses serious risks possibly resulting in death.

If you suspect a Nursing Home is not addressing the wandering or elopement of your loved one you may be entitled to financial compensation for the damages incurred by the severe risks of wandering and elopement present. The lawyers at Sweeney Law Firm specialize in elder care law and will help ensure that the neglect does not continue and that your loved one receives adequate care. There is no cost or obligation for us to evaluate your case. The Sweeney Law Firm works on a contingency fee basis. There is never a fee unless a recovery is made for you.