A nursing home owes a duty to protect elderly patients from a variety of hazards, including falls, C. Diff. infections, assault by employees or other patients, dehydration, malnutrition and bed sores, to name a few. Another hazard, called elopement, involves special considerations. Elopement occurs when an impaired patient wanders away from supervision in the nursing home setting. Each year, we hear news reports of patients being found in a pond after drowning, succumbing to hypothermia in frigid weather or suffering some other harm, after wandering away from a nursing home.
Ohio nursing homes are subject to both State and federal regulations. When a skilled nursing facility fails to comply with these regulations, and a patient suffers injury or wrongful death as a result, a claim for nursing home negligence may exist. In the absence of a specific regulation, skilled care facilities may be held liable for neglect or abuse that occurs in violation of accepted standards of care, including deviations from their own policies and procedures or the patient’s individual care plan.
Elopement is typically associated with dementia. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, “[d]ementia is a general term for a decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with daily life.” Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia in elderly people. It afflicts about 5 million Americans. Though Alzheimer’s disease usually occurs in older people, about 200,000 Americans have “early onset” disease which affects those in their 40s and 50s.
Some articles estimate the incidence of elopement at 20% in patients with dementia. The risk of elopement may be exacerbated by “sundowners syndrome,” a condition that makes certain patients more agitated and restless in late evening and early morning hours, when staffing is at its lowest and the risk of a resident slipping out without the staff’s knowledge at its highest.
Nursing home regulations require periodic assessment of patients for the risk of wandering, and to prepare a care plan to protect those patients who are at increased risk. In addition to individual care plans, facilities must undertake certain general precautions, such as door alarms and video surveillance, to prevent elopement. When the facility fails to take adequate preventative measures, and a patient is injured, a lawsuit may be warranted under Ohio law.