If you have a loved one who receives care in a nursing home, you probably have some reasonable expectations for the quality of that care. If your loved one is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, you may have expectations regarding the nursing home’s ability to safely manage the risk of elopement.

Elopement, which can also be referred to as “exit-seeking behavior”, involves someone wandering away from their caregivers and often the nursing home itself. This can be very dangerous for someone who suffers memory loss.

When is wandering dangerous?

Wandering is not always dangerous. People with dementia may wander because they are seeking a basic need that is unmet. Sometimes wandering can help them meet this need. Wandering can also help someone get exercise that keeps them healthy.

However, wandering can become unsafe very quickly if it is not managed appropriately. It can be dangerous to those with memory issues because they can easily become lost or exhausted. It may also increase someone’s risk of injury.

The safety risks are much greater when the person wanders out of the nursing home, which may be more likely to occur at understaffed facilities. Usually, the longer someone is gone, the greater the risks.

What strategies can help reduce unsafe wandering?

If you are concerned about a care facility’s ability to manage a loved one’s exit-seeking behavior, it may be worth discussing those concerns with the facility’s management. Consider asking about the facility’s goals and strategies regarding wandering.

It may be beneficial for the facility to encourage the person’s mobility and choice, while making sure that the person’s needs are met. However, a nursing home should also have adequate strategies to prevent unsafe wandering, as well as elopement.

Appropriate strategies may include:

  • Minimizing the risk of overstimulation
  • Offering activities that prevent understimulation
  • Providing a safe path to walk with points of interest and places to rest
  • Incorporating helpful signs to orient someone
  • Disguising exit doors
  • Having a lost-person plan

It is reasonable to expect a nursing home to keep your loved one safe. If nursing home staff allowed your loved one to wander off, it could be appropriate to hold the facility responsible. Your loved one should not end up injured because of the shortcomings of their care facility or its staff.