Of all the issues facing someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia, perhaps the most dangerous is wandering. Understanding the potential warning signs of those at risk, the causes and preventative actions, can help keep your loved one safe.
There are five main reasons someone may wander.
- Stress or fear. When someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia is uncomfortable or does not understand what is happening around them, they might feel the need to flee and seek calm and familiarity.
- Searching for something. Sometimes a person suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia is searching for something or someone, so they keep looking and wandering.
- Boredom. A loved one can wander off because they are bored and are looking for something interesting to do or see.
- Unmet basic needs. Even if a person with Alzheimer’s or dementia is well taken care of, when an immediate need isn’t being met, they may wander. For instance, if they need a bathroom and can’t find one, they may start wandering, even going outside.
- Following past routines. Sometimes a person with Alzheimer’s may think they are still following old routines such as going to work or school. This may lead them to get up in the morning and start their commute or walk to the school bus.
With these reasons in mind, here are some signs your loved may be at risk for wandering:
- Increasing times taken to return from normal outings such as a walk, drive or errands
- Discussing old routines like going to work or school and the need to be somewhere at a specific time
- Expressing a wish to “go home” even when they are already at home
- Not knowing where past friends or family members have gone
- Forgetting how to get to “usual places” such as a friend’s house, church or grocery store
- Unable to find or distinguish different rooms in the house
- Becoming restless, nervous, and agitated in crowds
Now that you are familiar with the warning signs and reasons for wandering, prevention should be the focus. These suggestions could help prevent wandering:
Have a schedule. Having structure helps reduce anxiety and stress and provides an understandable routine.
Give reassurance. If your loved one is feeling disoriented, help them feel safe and secure.
Attend to immediate needs. Check frequently to see if they want to eat or use the bathroom.
Lock and disguise doors. Placing slide–locks high on doors can help keep them from being opened, potentially leading to wandering outside or falling down stairs. Disguise doors by hanging a curtain or poster in front. Place signs on doors explaining what they are (bathroom, bedroom, etc.). Never leave an Alzheimer or dementia sufferer alone and locked in the house. Always ensure there is an emergency exit.
Use alarms. Elaborate security systems or simple bells on doors and windows can help you track your loved one’s whereabouts. Also, weight sensitive mats and pads are available that can be placed under a mattress or on the floor to alert you when your loved one is getting out of bed.
Hide car keys. Keys should be out of reach to prevent any driving.
Even with the best preparation and attention, your loved one may still wander off and get lost. Some additional proactive steps can help ensure their safe and quick return.
- Contact authorities. Many people are found quickly and close to home.
- Have a recent photo and medical history available.
- Inform neighbors of the situation. Ask to be alerted if your loved one is seen walking alone.
- Provide your loved one with a wearable ID and/or GPS device.
- Sew their information into their clothing.
- Enroll them in a Safe Return program.
Wandering is a very scary reality for caregivers of Alzheimer’s and dementia sufferers. Understanding why it happens, how to prevent it, and what to do in an emergency will help keep your loved one safe and secure.