An elderly couple, who both suffer from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, managed to break out of the Elmcroft of Lebanon assisted living facility in Tennessee using Morse code. Though the couple remained unnamed, their ingenuity and determination to escape was certainly noteworthy.

Staff members at the facility were initially curious about how the husband was able to decipher the keypads on the doors. When they asked him about it, he revealed that he had received military training in the past and used Morse code for his job. Each number on the keypad has a corresponding tone, and he had simply paid close attention to the sounds until he could figure out the codes.

He and his wife then listened for staff members using doors until they were finally able to escape.

In response to the incident, Elmcroft of Lebanon was fined $2,000 for potentially risking the safety of their patients. The facility released a statement emphasizing their commitment to the safety of their residents and their cooperation with local authorities. They have since changed all of the door codes and agreed to schedule more time for residents to go on walks outside of the facility to try and reduce the likelihood of any future escape attempts.

It seems that this incident served as a valuable lesson for the facility about the abilities and determination of their residents. While it is important to prioritize safety, it is also important to recognize and support the independence and autonomy of elderly individuals, even those with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

Despite common usage, dementia and Alzheimer’s are not interchangeable terms. Dementia refers to a range of symptoms, including memory loss and cognitive decline, while Alzheimer’s is a specific type of degenerative brain disease that accounts for 60 to 80% of dementia cases, as reported by the Alzheimer’s Association. Currently, over six million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease.

Environmental factors, age, and genetics can all contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s disease, and prevention efforts are complicated by the varying degrees of risk associated with these factors. Those who develop the disease due to genetic factors may have limited options for prevention, while environmental factors can potentially be modified and addressed.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, wandering is a common occurrence for individuals with dementia, with 6 out of 10 people with some form of dementia wandering at least once. This happens because the person with dementia may no longer be able to recognize their surroundings or loved ones, leading them to seek out familiar places or people.

Danish senior couple (2014), (Francis Dean/Corbis/Deanpictures/Getty Images

The wandering phenomenon is also referred to as “elopement,” which should not be confused with getting married secretly. According to Crisis Prevention, elopement occurs when a dependent resident leaves a facility without observation or knowledge of departure, under circumstances that jeopardize their health, safety, or welfare.

The primary concern with elopement and wandering is that the patient may not be found or may be injured while they are away from the care they need. However, the elderly couple who used morse code to escape had a positive outcome, thanks to the vigilance of a nearby stranger who noticed them walking alone.

The term “wandering” may be misleading as it implies that the patient does not know where they are going, which is typically not the case. Most people with dementia wander because they are trying to return to what they remember as their home before the disease took their memories. It is a tragic and challenging situation to face.

One way to help dementia patients stay safe is to take them for walks so that they do not feel trapped indoors, as agreed upon by Elmcroft of Lebanon for their wandering patient. Door locks are also crucial, but they must be changed frequently, as demonstrated by the elderly couple from the story. Limiting the risk of elopement and having a protocol in place in case a patient goes missing is critical.

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