Thursday, July 17, 2008

A Lesson from Joe Louis's Sister

In the news today is a story about the great boxer, Joe Louis’s sister, who died in February after wandering away from her care center and freezing to death.

It’s a tragic story; one that encapsulates every family member's fear when mom or dad loses the ability to remember and reason, and is moved into a care setting.

Will she be safe? Will anyone pay attention to him? Will she feel lost, alone and worried?

For many folks with memory loss the feelings of confusion, loss and anxiety are present all the time. No place seems familiar anymore. No one is recognizable. Every place – and everyone – seems strange, uncomfortable and foreign.

What we call wandering is usually just an attempt on the part of that person to return to a place where things make sense again – and it clearly isn’t the place they currently reside.

For Joe Louis’s family, this story ends tragically. According to the allegations in the lawsuit, the facility had neither monitoring nor alarms on the door; truly, an lapse that is hard to explain or excuse if true.

For families everywhere, familiar with this scenario, the truth is often more challenging. Doors with alarms can feel safe, but what happens when the attendant (or family member) is vacuuming or in the restroom and doesn’t hear the alarm? What happens when the person slides out with someone else, like another visiting family member?

It’s happened to me in my own alarmed, secured memory care communities. A resident walked freely out on the tails of a visiting family group who was so absorbed in conversation no one noticed the tag-along.

An experienced nurse told me the story just the other day of an incident when she actually let the person out of the secured facility – held the door for her. She looked so “normal” and had asked nicely if the new nurse would please hold the door – so she did.

Security in the best of situations is not foolproof (witness prison breakouts); far better to focus on helping the person feel comfortable, safe and at home – no matter where you are.

And set the door alarms.

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