U.S. Assisted Living Homes Have Troubling Rates of Resident Wandering

America’s senior assisted-living industry has grown immensely in recent years. Unfortunately, much of this growth has been fueled by private equity and real estate firms that view these facilities as investments (which produce sizable returns) and the residents who live in them as income-producing products rather than people.

Tragically, but far from unexpectedly, this prioritization of profits over people has had profound repercussions on quality of care and safety within U.S. assisted living and memory care facilities.

This includes, as we discussed in a previous blog, chronic staffing shortages and rampant neglect. It also includes, as an investigative report from The Washington Post shows, alarming rates of wandering.

Nursing Home Wandering Rates Skyrocket

The Washington Post begins its article with a tragic story of a 77-year-old woman who died after wandering away from an Iowa assisted-living facilities that caters to people with dementia.

According to authorities, the woman, an Alzheimer’s patient with a history of wandering, made her way through an exit door one evening into temperatures well below 0°.

While her exit triggered automated texts that repeated every few minutes to two-night shift caretakers, an on-call nurse, and the facility’s director, none of the notified parties heard them or acted on them. The two caretakers also failed to follow through with the facility’s hourly safety checks for memory-care residents. As a result, staff did not begin searching for the woman until 6 a.m. – more than eight hours after she exited the building. She was found on the frozen ground near the exit and died shortly after at a nearby hospital.

This story, unfortunately, is an all-too-common scenario at assisted living and memory care facilities in America. Residents with Alzheimer’s and other cognitive problems wander away from these facilities on a nearly daily basis, and the consequences are often tragic. According to statistics published by The Post:

  • More than 2,000 patients have wandered away from assisted living and dementia care facilities or were left unattended since 2018.
  • Nearly 100 of those patients died, though the number may be higher as regulators have cited facilities over 200 times since 2018 for failing to properly report missing residents.
  • In cases where a cause of death could be determined among those who wandered away, over 60% died due to exposure to extreme cold or heat. Others have died after walking into ditches, drowning in bodies of water, or being struck by vehicles.

These alarming statistics show a clear pattern of neglect in an industry that has blossomed into a $34-billion-dollar behemoth on the backs of venture capitalists and real estate investment firms that purchase and operate facilities despite their lack of any actual training or certifications.

Because these parties are motivated by profits – charging families an average of $6,000 a month to house and care for seniors and vulnerable adults – they also often implement cuts and changes that directly impact quality of care. This includes reducing staff, employing unskilled or novice workers for lower pay, and other tactics that have been found to directly contribute to problems with wandering, neglect, abuse, and exploitation.

That’s a major problem for assisted living facilities, which now house more than 1 million people nationwide – nearly half of whom are people with dementia and other fragile states of mental health that make them most at risk of wandering away. That’s because these individuals can be confused but are often highly mobile, often object to living in institutional settings, and require more oversight than residents without cognitive issues.

Unfortunately, as the article goes on to discuss, the federal government does not regulate assisted care facilities (of which there are roughly 30,000 in the U.S.) in the manner that it does nursing homes.

Instead, these facilities are regulated by states, many of which lack strong staffing and training requirements even though state regulators continually find evidence of neglect when investigating wandering cases and walkaway deaths. In numerous cases reviewed by The Post, state regulators cited evidence of insufficient staff-to-resident ratios, general neglect, staff ignoring alarms, skipping resident checks, and even sleeping on the job, and several cases of falsified records. State regulatory bodies have also been notoriously lax on imposing any meaningful penalties. Fines for failing to report wandering, for example, seldom exceed $10,000, which is less than two months of an average resident’s rent, and criminal charges for neglect or falsifying records are few and far between, having occurred just four times in cases involving fatal wandering incidents in the past years, according to records reviewed by The Post.

The lack of oversight, enforcement, and reporting requirements have largely allowed assisted living facility operators to continue the status quo and to funnel their funds into marketing efforts that attract more residents. That’s because families of those who were injured or who died due to wandering or neglect were never aware of the problem and did not know how to investigate facility safety records. Currently, little more than half of U.S. states make inspection and violation reports available online, and many that do utilize websites that are difficult to find and navigate. In other states, the only way to obtain such information would be to contact state officials or file public records requests.

Brown & Barron, LLC: Leading the Fight for Assisted Living Facility Victims

At Brown & Barron, LLC, we’ve seen firsthand how the influence of money in our nation’s assisted living and nursing home industries has had a devastating impact on residents and their loved ones. And, in the absence of better regulations, cohesive oversight, and sufficient penalties for facilities that fail to protect residents, we have also seen how our work helping victims pursue claims through the civil legal system is often the best way to seek justice, raise awareness, and add to the momentum for much-needed changes.

As such, our team is passionate about helping victims and families fight for justice and compensation in a range of nursing home abuse and neglect cases, including those involving:

At Brown & Barron, LLC, we’re committed to holding corporations accountable when their focus on profits comes at the price of resident safety. If you have questions about a potential case anywhere in Baltimore or the state of Maryland, we can help.

Call (410) 698-1717 or contact us online to request a free consultation

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