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Dementia and Wandering: How to Help Prevent and Reduce the Risks

Six in ten people living with dementia will wander according to the Alzheimer’s Association®. Worrying over loved ones who have wandered away from home and ended up missing can be scary and nerve-racking for families, care partners, and close friends. Searching for a loved one with dementia who has gone missing can be agonizing. 

People unfamiliar with dementia patients wandering away may be taken aback when this happens. Some may wonder how anyone who has lived in the same area for years can get lost and not even remember how to get back home or how a person in the early stages of dementia could be unable to find his or her way home after doing their weekly shopping.

It is common for people with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia to wander away or become disoriented. In some instances, a person with dementia may not be able to find their way around in their own home. Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia not only impact memory and judgment but can also affect spatial orientation and the person’s ability to navigate their surroundings.

Family caregivers can take steps to reduce their loved one's chances of wandering away by identifying behaviors that increase the risk. Once wandering behaviors are identified, family members and care partners must follow up with measures to help ensure the person's safety.

Who is at risk of wandering away and getting lost?

The following telltale signs and wandering behaviors may help identify if a person with dementia is at increased risk of wandering away and getting lost:

  • Is not able to recognize their current home. They may say, "I want to go home" because they can only remember or identify a home from their past as being their home;
  • Starts searching for or asking about childhood friends or family members who do not live in the area or who passed away long ago;
  • Is unable to identify the location of a favorite neighborhood park while taking an afternoon stroll or cannot remember how to get home while driving;
  • Exhibits constant pacing and agitation going from room to room searching for an object or person from the past;
  • Wanders outside at odd hours of the night or day.

 

When you become aware of these telltale signs, do not delay notifying your loved one’s physician and close family members about your concerns. Also, keep a journal that includes your loved one’s daily routines, sleep behaviors, and schedule of activities. Along with routines and activities, document instances of wandering behaviors. Did your loved one get lost in an area that should have been all too familiar?  Did he or she start talking about going back to another home from years past? When writing down your observations, make sure to include the time when these instances occurred, along with possible triggers. Share your information with your loved one’s physician whenever possible.

Steps to help keep your loved one safe from wandering

Family caregivers can take steps to help reduce the risk of a person with dementia wandering off and getting into a dangerous predicament. Consider the following tips and recommendations:

  • To ensure safety and peace of mind, never leave a person with dementia unattended at home or in a vehicle, especially if they are unable to find their way around or navigate their surroundings.
  • Provide extra supervision and care. Having additional assistance can help improve patient care and lower the risk of a dementia patient wandering off. If more patient monitoring is needed, a support team of trained caregivers can step in and assist a family caregiver or take turns providing patient care. 
  • Set up a door chime or bell system that alerts a caregiver when a door is opened. A pressure-sensitive alarm mat can also be added near an exterior door to help alert family caregivers.
  • The Alzheimer's Association® suggests placing deadbolts out of the line of sight, either high or low, on the home's exterior doors. However, they also remind everyone not to leave a person with dementia unattended and to never lock a person inside the house.
  • The National Institute on Aging cautions people on the use of locked doors and doorknob covers:

“Due to the potential hazard they could cause if an emergency exit is needed, locked doors and doorknob covers should be used only when a caregiver is present.”

  • Ensure that yard fences are in good condition. Also, make sure gates are closed and locked to reduce the likelihood of anyone accessing an open area or walking into the street, a retention pond, or even a neighboring pool. If there is a backyard pool at home, consider adding or improving safety features, such as updating pool fencing and adding a pool alarm.
  • Schedule daily activities to help keep your loved one engaged. Participating in a fun activity can also mitigate stress levels for both the caregiver and the person with dementia. 
  • Provide senior loved ones with wearable technology, such as a bracelet or a watch that includes a GPS. If possible, encourage the person to use a medical bracelet.

Always be prepared

  • Always keep an up-to-date photo and video of your loved one.
  • Keep a list of favorite places he or she might wander to or want to visit.
  • Keep a current list of nearby areas of concern, such as lakes, ponds, wooded areas, abandoned buildings, nearby railroad tracks, and bus or rail depots.
  • The Alzheimer’s Association recommends enrolling people with dementia in an emergency wandering response program. To find out more, please visit https://www.alz.org/help-support/caregiving/safety/medicalert-with-24-7-wandering-support.
  • Learn about Alzheimer’s and dementia. When possible, attend local Alzheimer’s and dementia support group meetings for family caregivers. For more information, visit the Alzheimer’s & Dementia Resource Center (ADRC) website at https://adrccares.org/

What should you do if a loved one with dementia wanders away?

  • Act immediately and don’t wait to start your search.
  • Can you identify what the person was wearing?
  • Where was the person seen last?
  • Check inside and outside the home, in neighboring areas, parks, and waterways, and in all areas the person may have wandered to before.
  • If you are unable to find the person within 15 minutes, call 911!

We hope the information presented in this blog, along with tips on preventing and reducing the risks of wandering, helps you and your family.

Should you or a family member need assistance in providing care for a loved one with dementia,

please call Senior Helpers Orlando at (407) 628-4357. We can help! Senior Helpers Orlando provides in-home health care services and Alzheimer’s and dementia care in Orange, Osceola, and Seminole counties.

Thank you!

Ana P De Lane

Senior Helpers Orlando Team Member

 

Resources and References:

Wandering, Stages and Behaviors; Alzheimer’s Association®; retrieved March 11, 2021, from

https://www.alz.org/help-support/caregiving/stages-behaviors/wandering

Wandering, Prepare Your Home; Alzheimer’s Association®; retrieved March 11, 2021, from

https://www.alz.org/help-support/caregiving/stages-behaviors/wandering#prepare

Wandering and Alzheimer’s Disease, Alzheimer’s Caregiving; National Institute on Aging, National institutes of Health (NIH); report updated May 17, 2017; retrieved March 20, 2021, from https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/wandering-and-alzheimers-disease

24/7 Wandering Support for a Safe Return; Alzheimer’s Association®; retrieved March 20, 2021, from https://www.alz.org/help-support/caregiving/safety/medicalert-with-24-7-wandering-support

Alzheimer’s & Dementia Resource Center; https://adrccares.org/