Last year, a 75 year old man suffering from Alzheimer’s was aggressively arrested and pepper sprayed after he was discovered wandering within the Wanaque Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation in Haskell, NJ. He was left blind as a result of the pepper spray and spent the last 10 months of his life never again able to see his daughters. According to a lawsuit filed this month in Passaic County court, Angel Pantoja was freely roaming the halls at the Wanaque Center for Nursing and Rehab, where he was a resident. For unknown reasons, nursing home staff alerted local police that a resident was on the loose within the facility, exaggerating his behavioral and health status enough to lead police to believe that forceful arrest measures were necessary. When the responding officer came across Mr. Pantoja in a hallway, they claimed he was carrying an unidentified weapon and advancing towards the officer, justifying his use of pepper spray. The pepper spray blinded him, a pre-arrest tactic that the lawyer for his estate deemed unnecessary. As a result, Mr. Pantoja was hospitalized and was blind until he died 10 months later. He was also arrested and charged with assault, resisting arrest, and disorderly conduct. The responding officer said in a statement that he was led to believe that Mr. Pantoja was dangerous because the facility told him Mr. Pantoja had stabbed one of his own daughters in the eye, a claim his daughter denies.
While family acknowledges that the pepper spray was not Mr. Pantoja’s cause of death, the complaint filed by his family against both the local police and the Wanaque Center for Nursing and Rehab says they are seeking damages for their father having to “sustain mental anguish, distress and damage. [He] was never able to open his eyes again and was not able to see his daughters in his time of passing.”
Local Police Trained to Handle Situations Involving Those with Alzheimer’s and Dementia
According to NorthJersey.com, a subsidiary of USA Today, New Jersey police are trained to react appropriately in incidents involving those suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Since 2005, police in the state of New Jersey are required to undergo training in the Alzheimer’s Association’s Safe Return Program. According to a memo from the state Attorney General at the time, 60% of those suffering from Alzheimer’s will wander from home or a care facility at least once in their lifetime, meaning local law enforcement will have ample opportunity to become involved in return efforts. The directive from the Attorney General asked that police officers treat those with Alzheimer’s or dementia with special care, including talking to them about the situation, what is happening, and what needs to happen. It is unclear whether the responding officer had received this training.
For Residents with Alzheimer’s and Dementia, Security and Staffing Are Main Concerns
Given the prevalence of wandering and eloping (leaving home or a care facility) among documented Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, nursing homes are expected to implement safety measures that can prevent such situations from happening. Staff should be diligent about checking on residents and ensuring their whereabouts, doors should have alarms, and residents can be outfitted with special tracking devices that show their location and can trigger alarms when passing through restricted areas (outside their room, into stairwells, or out exit doors, for example). Proper staffing ratios and vigilance on the part of nursing home is crucial. Nursing homes are infamous for understaffing, placing the burden of a heavy patient load onto the shoulders of nurses and CNAs. Residents who are inadequately supervised are not only able to fall while attempting to move about, but can be a risk to themselves and others if they have a medical condition that may make them aggressive to others or themselves.
Despite the known risks associated with low staffing numbers and a lack of security measures, many nursing homes seem shocked when a resident with dementia or Alzheimer’s escapes the facility or is found wandering the halls, in a stairwell, or in another resident’s room. There should be no surprises here. Saving money by keeping staff and security measures at a minimum is asking for tragedy. If someone you love has been injured after wandering or escaping their care facility, please call the nursing home abuse and neglect attorneys of Levin & Perconti. For nearly 30 years our attorneys have faced down nursing homes who attempt to use a mental health diagnosis as an excuse for insufficient oversight and poor care. We have successfully litigated and settled numerous cases of wandering and elopement for families just like yours. For a free consultation with one of our attorneys, please call us at 312-332-2872 or complete on our online case evaluation form.