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Wandering and Elopement in Cold Weather

As temperatures drop throughout the country, many of you may be concerned about a loved one in a nursing home. If your loved one has dementia or another form of cognitive impairment, they may be at risk of wandering away from the facility and being exposed to harsh conditions. Our team of nursing home negligence lawyers details the risks of wandering and elopement in freezing temperatures and measures you can take to prevent nursing home wandering.

A new study found that sustained drops in temperature – meaning severely low temperatures for two or more days in a row – increase deaths from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. Cold temperatures cause airways and blood vessels to constrict, placing elderly and ill people particularly at risk.

There are two general types of wandering: goal-directed and non-goal directed. Residents who wander because they are searching for someone or something, or wanted to perform a certain task, are goal-directed wanderers. Non-goal directed wandering does not have this type of purpose and is often considered aimless. Elopement is the most dangerous form of wandering, characterized by a resident who leaves a safe area unnoticed and unsupervised and does not return on their own.

A 2006 study found one in five people with dementia wander. That same study found that nursing home residents who wander have double the risk of fracturing a bone compared to residents who did not wander. Other serious injuries from wandering can include hypothermia, frostbite, falls, and other life-threatening accidents.

Risk Factors and Preventative Measures

There are many factors contributing to wandering risk. Data shows that socially active and outgoing men with poor sleep patterns, aggression or agitation are most likely to wander. Residents with unmet physical or social needs are also at greatest risk.

Well-run and adequately staffed nursing homes attempt to prevent wandering and elopement by identifying at-risk residents and implementing safety procedures. Federal law requires all nursing homes accepting Medicare and Medicaid to conduct thorough assessments of each resident’s needs within two weeks of admission, and at least every three months after that. If there is ever a significant change in the resident’s physical or mental condition, staff must conduct an immediate reassessment.

Measures to minimize the risk of wandering can include encouraging the resident to sit at the table with other residents for meals; facilitating social contact and physical activities; and carefully designed environments.More information on wandering prevention can be found here

Wandering Caused by Neglect

In January 2015, a dementia resident in a Minnesota nursing home wandered outside for nearly half an hour. Temperatures were at -4 degrees, with a -24 degree windchill. Nursing home staff did not respond to door alert systems. The resident had a history of wandering, leaving the facility at least six times prior to this incident.

The resident was found lying on the ground in an embankment, without a jacket. She suffered frostbite to her fingers and was hospitalized for hypothermia. The Minnesota Department of Health determined the resident was subject to neglect.

Nursing homes can be held liable if a resident is injured during a wandering or elopement incident. These facilities must provide the standard of care to their residents by implementing systems to prevent wandering. If the nursing home fails to do so, any injured resident or their family may be able to file a negligence claim.

Our team of nursing home negligence lawyers has represented residents and their families for 30 years. We know exactly how overwhelming and stressful placing a loved one in a nursing home can be. We want you to remember that injuries or mistreatment occurring at the facility are not your fault. These facilities must be held responsible for their negligence or abuse, and the best, most effective way to do so is through a nursing home injury lawsuit. Consult our attorneys for a free case review today. We accept cases nationwide.

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