Wandering and Alzheimer's Care: What Wandering Is, What Causes it,…
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Wandering is a serious safety concern for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia. When it occurs, it can be a frightening and traumatic experience for everyone involved. People have been reported wandering in the middle of the winter with no protective clothing. Serious injury or even death can occur. If your family member has Alzheimer’s or dementia, assume that they will wander. Make plans early to keep your loved one safe.

What is Wandering?

Alzheimer’s and dementia-related wandering affects approximately 60% of people. By recognizing the signs that someone is prone to wandering, you can take proactive measures to keep your family member safe. Let’s take a look at what wandering looks like.

3 Common Forms of Wandering

  1. Leaving the house unattended and getting lost. People who wander will slip out of the house and start walking. This can happen day or night and in any weather. You may have no idea where they are going, and they may not either.
  2. Wandering away when with you. You could be at the store, the park, or any number of other places. It just takes a moment when you aren’t paying attention and your family member is gone.
  3. Getting lost driving. This can be the first sign that your family member has some serious memory and cognitive issues. Mom or dad takes a drive to the grocery store that they have been to a hundred times before, and they get lost and can’t find their way back home. Keep a lookout for signs your loved one shouldn’t be driving.

What Causes Wandering?

Understanding the causes of wandering will help you in your efforts to prevent it. You may be able to lessen the risk of wandering with some simple behavioral techniques, or you may need to resort to some high tech options.

4 Causes of Wandering

  1. Confusion and fear. Memory loss and confusion can be very stressful for people. When they don’t know how to manage their fear, they may want to escape.
  2. Searching. People with dementia often search for someone or something. They may say they are looking for a spouse who has long been deceased. They also may attempt to go to a job they no longer have.
  3. Feeling confined. People with dementia can get bored, restless, and agitated. Leaving their environment relieves those feelings.
  4. Basic needs. This could be anything from hunger, thirst, or pain. A person with Alzheimer’s or dementia may not want to take their medications or get in the shower.

8 Ways to Prevent Wandering in Those with Dementia

There are measures you can take to prevent wandering and keep your loved one safe. The sooner you can put these precautions in place, the sooner you can prevent serious injury.

  1. Don’t leave someone unattended. If you need to be away from the home regularly, hire a home care caregiver to stay with your loved one during your absence. Don’t ever leave someone unattended.
  2. Lock the doors. Install a lock that is up high or low on the door so that it can’t be unlocked easily. A keyed deadbolt is an option but remember, you may need a quick exit during an emergency.
  3. GPS. Personal alert systems now have Global Positioning Systems (GPS) programs in their devices. The trick may be convincing your family member to wear one and not take it off.
  4. Alzheimer’s Safe Return program and MedicAlert. With this program, the member (person with Alzheimer’s) wears an ID bracelet. When a call comes into the 24-hour hotline, MedicAlert has all of the information about the person to coordinate with local emergency responders and family members to facilitate a safe return. All health and other relevant information is provided to the program and is relayed to authorities in case the person goes missing.
  5. Door or bed alarms. Consider putting an alarm on the front door so you will be notified if someone is trying to leave. At night, a bed alarm will let you know when your loved one is getting out of bed.
  6. Identification. If you are using the Safe Return Program, identification is on the bracelet. If you are not using this program, make sure your family member has ID on them at all times. Some people sew information into clothing.
  7. Provide a safe area for wandering. Weather permitting, this could be a fenced in yard area. A professional caregiver can provide walks and other activities to keep someone occupied and calm.
  8. Attend to basic needs. People with Alzheimer’s and dementia often have pain or other discomforts that they can’t verbalize. You may want to offer other ways of communicating through dementia to understand their needs. If you suspect a medical problem, consult a physician. Review medications to make sure there are no problematic side effects. Make sure your family member is hydrated and getting enough to eat.

As a family caregiver, your loved one’s safety and happiness are your primary concerns. With these preventative measures, you can prevent wandering while improving the quality of life for your family member.


Wandering - Alzheimer's Association

24/7 Wandering Support for a Safe Return

About the Author(s)

Amanda Lambert is the owner and president of Lambert Care Management, LLC which provides care management for older and disabled adults. She is the co-author of Choose Your Place: Rethinking Home as You Age (November 2020) and of Aging with Care: Your Guide to Hiring and Managing Caregivers at Home (Rowman and Littlefield, 2018). She has worked for over 20 years in the senior-related industry including mental health, marketing and guardianship. She has a passion for topics related to health, wellness and resilience as we age.

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