Dementia and Wandering
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Dementia and Wandering

Older adults who suffer from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease will often feel a compulsion to walk and wander about. Naturally, there is no real place for them to go, and most of the time they are not even aware of what direction they’re heading in. They simply feel the need to move and walk around aimlessly. This behavior is often called “wandering” by medical professionals, researchers, and caregivers.

Wandering behavior can be triggered by a wide variety of things. The desire to look for something or someone, such as a long lost family member or friend. The need to “fulfill” a no longer relevant obligation, such as attempting to go to work, or to attend a long over event. Some adults who suffer from dementia wander due to expressing a wish to “go home”, despite the fact that they’re already living comfortably in their own home. It can occur in the context of stress, pain, disorientation, lack of sleep, or unmet needs such as loneliness, boredom, or hunger.

About sixty percent of people with dementia, either Alzheimer’s, or another form, will experience wandering. Wandering behavior most commonly occurs in the middle or later stages of dementia. For many people diagnosed with dementia, wandering or pacing can be beneficial in the sense that it can relieve anxiety and also provide exercise. But it can go further, and what makes it become a very serious concern for families, caregivers, and even law enforcement, is known as “elopement”, or “critical wandering”. This can escalate, leading to what is known as a “missing incident”.

Missing incidents occur when the whereabouts of an elderly person with dementia is unknown to the caregiver, and the person is not in the expected location. Because one of the effects of dementia is to impair a person’s ability to recognize that they are in danger, or independently take action to return home or preserve their own safety, missing incidents represent a serious and pressing threat to the health and safety of a person suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. According to research, about one half of those dementia patients who experience missing incidents and are not found within 24 hours risk serious injury, or even death.

For many municipalities, missing incidents are responded to with “silver alerts”. Much the same as an amber alert, a silver alert is a public notification system that broadcasts information about a missing person. Silver alerts notify of missing older adults, especially those with Alzheimer’s, dementia, or other mental disabilities, to aid in their recovery.

The goal should be to anticipate wandering, plan for it before it happens, and therefore prevent missing incidents altogether. If wandering has occurred before, or the risk of wandering is high, first remember that wandering can be beneficial when done in a safe, secure environment. Trying to restrict the mobility of the person will make matters worse, leading to distress and behavioral problems. Maintaining a routine or structure will help, as will avoiding busy public spaces that can cause confusion. By ensuring basic needs are met, you can prevent them from wandering seeking fulfillment. If wandering occurs at night, limit daytime napping as much as possible. And never leave them alone in an unlocked home or vehicle.