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When you think of neglect in nursing homes, you may think of patients with bedsores or those who aren’t given sufficient food, water or medication. One thing you don’t often hear about is wandering or elopement in nursing homes. Wandering refers to walking around inside the nursing home, while elopement refers to leaving the facility in an attempt to run away.

Wandering and elopement are both especially common among seniors with dementia. It is estimated that as many as 70 percent of elderly Americans with dementia have wandered at least once. Up to 31 percent of nursing home residents have wandered.

Both wandering and elopement can be dangerous, but elopement is especially serious because it often leads to death. Many nursing home residents who attempt to elope don’t just simply walk out of the nursing home. They use motorized wheelchairs and are often mistaken as guests. They then exit the facility without permission or supervision. Sometimes a staff member finds them before they injure themselves. In some cases, though, they cross a street or stay outside in inclement weather. By the time they are found, it is too late.


Many of those in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities are placed in there by family members who have concerns about their wandering. Wandering becomes both a nuisance and safety concern to family members who simply cannot keep an eye on their loved ones 24/7.

Wandering is common among those with dementia and other cognitive impairments. It is done purposely to fulfill a need. Sometimes the patient may wander because he or she feels uncomfortable. Unfamiliar environment, medication changes, changes in schedule and being left alone can all increase the risk of a person wandering.

It is important to know that those with dementia have a low threshold for stress. Their ability to cope with stress decreases as the disease progresses. When those with dementia feel overwhelmed by internal or external stress, their first reaction is to leave the environment. This causes many dementia sufferers to wander around their nursing home facility or even leave altogether.


Wandering around the inside of a facility rarely leads to much harm. However, elopement is the most dangerous type of wandering. Those who elope purposefully attempt to leave the premises—and not just once, but multiple times. In fact, 72 percent of those who have eloped attempt to do it again at a later time.


Wandering and elopement happen more often than you think. In Minnesota in December 2016, two deaths occurred with two weeks of other when two nursing home residents wandered away.  

The first incident occurred when a 77-year-old man left his assisted-living apartment at Boutwells Landing Senior Living in Oak Park Heights. He went missing at night and local firefighters and police searched for him. He was found dead the next morning. He was found on a walking path a half-mile away from the assisted-living facility.

Eight days later, on December 11, a 78-year-old man with dementia left the Cornerstone Commons assisted-living facility. He fell outside and injured his head. Early the next morning, police officers found him in a wheelchair inside the facility. He had an abrasion on his head and was still breathing but unresponsive. The man was taken to North Memorial Medical Center, where he died six days later.

It is believed that the weather played a role in the second man’s death. The temperature fell below 15 degrees on the morning he fell outside.


It is ideal when nursing homes can identify wanderers so they can be watched more carefully. Facilities should perform assessments of patients upon admission. The sooner the assessment can be done, the better, as most elopements happen within 48 hours of admission.

In fact, the law requires assessments shortly after admission. Under federal law, nursing homes that participate in Medicare or Medicaid are required to conduct a comprehensive assessment of each resident’s needs within two weeks after admission and every three months after. When there is a significant change in the patient’s mental or physical condition, a reassessment must be performed immediately.

Proper training and support should be given to all employees. They should understand the policies in place for preventing wandering. Even visitors should be advised as to how they can keep residents from inadvertently leaving the facility.


Nursing homes are responsible for the care and safety of their patients and can be held liable for patient injuries or deaths caused by neglect or abuse. Allowing a patient to leave a nursing home facility without permission is a type of neglect.

You may wish to file a lawsuit against the nursing home, depending on the damages involved. If your loved one went outside, but was quickly found before he or she suffered injuries, then there would be no damages involved. You likely would not be able to recover anything in a lawsuit. However, you should still discuss the situation with the nursing home and alert the Minnesota Department of Health so they can investigate the situation.

If your loved one engaged in elopement and suffered an injury or fatality, you may want to contact a lawyer to understand your legal rights.  A personal injury lawyer can help you explore your legal options.


While it’s important for our loved ones to have some degree of freedom in a nursing home environment, safety is also crucial. Nursing home residents should have security measures or internal protocols in place to ensure residents do not leave the building and cause injury to themselves.

Was your loved one seriously injured or killed after being allowed to wander and elope outside a nursing home? If so, contact the Minnesota nursing home abuse attorneys at Kosieradzki Smith Law Firm LLC for help. We can hold the nursing home liable for its negligence. To schedule a free consultation, contact us at (763) 225-2319 today or fill out our online form.


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