Safe vs. Unsafe Wandering

Wandering is a common occurrence among nursing home residents. “Wandering” is a term used to describe an elderly person’s frequent movement that appears aimless, or appears as repetitive locomotion. Wanderers typically follow a regular path, usually, at the same time each day; however, on occasion wanderers will veer from the familiar path and end up somewhere they are not supposed to be. Persons with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, or depression often will engage in some form of wandering, whether it is for short distances and duration, or whether it is so severe that they actually elope from the premises of the nursing home. Wandering occurs in so many residents that it is actually considered to be pathological in some. There are two types of wandering: safe, purposeful wandering, and unsafe, risky wandering.

Safe Wandering

Safe wandering can be good for a resident. For example, some residents find their daily walk around the grounds of the nursing home to be relaxing, energizing, and therapeutic. It gives them something to do, is a form of exercise, and can promote hunger, thirst, and overall well-being. Usually, residents who have most or all of their cognitive faculties recognize where it is safe to wander, and these residents exercise good judgment and discretion in their wanderings.

Unsafe Wandering

Unsafe wandering occurs when a resident inadvertently exposes him or herself to harm without recognition that there is any danger. Residents who have cognitive impairments are more likely to wander in an unsafe fashion. Similarly, residents who deliberately and purposefully elope often entertain the notion that they are able to make it outside of the facility and that they can take care of themselves, even though they usually lack any sort of resources at the time of elopement.

What Nursing Homes Can Do

Nursing homes have to find the right balance between providing safeguards for the residents and permitting the residents to exercise autonomy. Autonomy is complex, and residents need to have a sense of independence and freedom, even though they require assisted living facilities. Managing the balance can be a challenge, as each resident’s sense of autonomy is subjective. However, it can be readily apparent when insufficient effort is being made by the nursing home staff to provide safeguards against unsafe wandering and elopement. Lack of resident supervision, an inadequate number of available staff, open storage closets and sheds on the premises, and windows that open sufficiently for a human to get through and poorly lit walkways—both indoors and outdoors—can all be indications of insufficient precautions against unsafe wandering.

To discuss any concerns you may have about abuse of neglect of residents at a nursing home in our state, please contact Robert Rooth today. During a free initial consultation, one of our attorneys will listen carefully to your situation and explain the options available to you.


P. E. Lesteret al., Wandering and Elopement in Nursing Homes, Annals of Long-Term Care: Clinical Care and Aging, 2012;20(3):32-36.