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Know the dangers of wandering in nursing homes

Choosing a good nursing home for your loved one is a taxing and emotional process. You want to make sure your loved one is safe and receives proper care. Nursing home abuse may be a concern when making a choice, but you should also look into a home's security and ability to prevent wandering and elopement.

What are the risks of wandering?

Whenever a resident wanders the home without supervision, their chance of slipping and falling greatly increases. This can cause bruising, broken bones or other severe injuries. They may also have trouble standing or returning to their room without help.

Elopement is an even riskier situation. Elopement refers to a resident wandering out of the facility itself. This could not only lead to injury but there is also the potential for a resident to wander away and get lost if they are not spotted and brought back immediately.

Why do residents wander?

There are many reasons a resident could try to wander the home unattended. If they have Alzheimer's or dementia, they may forget where they are and believe there is something they have to do. People may forget where they were going or where they are. In many cases, they'll talk about "wanting to go home" or something similar, even if they are at home. As memories slip, for instance, an elderly person could become convinced that "home" is a house he or she hasn't lived in for 20 years.

Wandering may also be a response to discomfort from the new environment or a medication change. Some residents may wander to find a restroom if there is not enough staff to attend to them, or if they have a sleeping disorder and are restless.

What facility shortcomings lead to wandering?

In most cases, the problem at the facility is one or more of these things:

  • Inadequate staffing
  • Corner cutting
  • Poor training
  • Poor management

Whether the problem is a door left unlocked, an incorrect headcount or a failure to properly staff an area, 100 percent of the responsibility lies with the nursing home.

How common is wandering?

First and foremost, it should be noted that a consistent definition of wandering has not been established by the medical community. This does make it hard to determine exact statistics, as a case of wandering at one institution may not be considered the same way at another.

That being said, it's clear that the problem exists. One study estimated that about 20 percent of those with dementia -- one out of every five -- had wandering issues.

Another study found that the issue was more dire, stating that 31 percent of those living in nursing homes -- that includes all residents, not just those with dementia -- would wander. That study then claimed that the amount of people with dementia who would wander at some point -- just one incident was all it took to qualify -- was between 25 percent and 70 percent.

How can I prevent the risk of wandering?

It can be difficult for you to take any type of precautions beyond what the nursing home should offer. However, informing others of the loved one's risk of wandering and making sure they have a medical alert bracelet and personal information on their person at all times will help if they do leave the facility. When choosing a nursing home, check the following preventative measures:

  • Is the home fully staffed? An understaffed home means less supervision and more fatigued caretakers.
  • Are there security cameras? This helps the home spot potential danger.
  • Do they have an alarm system? Homes should have alarms to indicate if a resident is trying to leave the facility.
  • Are there double doors, with at least one that is locked or that uses a pin code for entry?
  • Does the facility offer monitored walks with an aide or nurse?
  • Are there frequent check-ins, to make sure they're in their room or within the confines of the facility?

You should also have very open communication. Ask questions before you make a final decision and make sure safety and security measures are in place. You have every right to ask about alarms, safety protocol and other info that could affect your loved one's care there.

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