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Dementia Wandering: Is Your Loved One at Risk of Getting Lost?

dementia wandering

You have probably heard of people with dementia wandering the streets, lost and confused, or at least seen such behavior depicted in a television show or movie. Maybe you’ve even thought about how terrifying that experience must be — not only for the person with dementia but for their family members and caregivers.

Now your parent or other elderly relative has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, and you’re scared that he or she might wander. The more knowledge you have about this side effect of dementia, the better prepared you’ll be to safeguard your loved one. So read on for an explanation of wandering behavior, as well as valuable tips to prevent it.

Dementia Wandering Behavior: The Basics

Some six out of every 10 people with dementia are at risk for wandering. Wandering can occur at any stage of the disease. If the patient is still driving, he or she can “wander” in a car.

There are several primary reasons why these individuals wander. They may believe that they are in a strange place, and set out to go “home” even if they are at home. Or they may think that they need to go to work, pick up their children, run errands, or do some other activity that they once did on a regular basis.

People with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia may set out with a particular purpose. For example, they could intend to go to the corner store, walk to a friend’s house, or just take a walk around the block. Midway into the excursion, they forget where they’re going, or forget how to get home.

Another cause for wandering is agitation. This is a common symptom of dementia, and it can be worsened by some medications. The patient may also be frightened, bored, or restless, and decide to leave their home or assisted living facility as a result of those emotions.

How To Lessen the Chances of Wandering

First, a warning about what not to do. Never lock a dementia patient inside a car, room, apartment, or home. This can cause agitation and upset. Instead, take steps to help the patient feel comfortable and safe. 

The first step is a daily schedule or plan. If the patient is in a memory care facility, this may mean taking part in scheduled activities such as meals, social hours, and so on. The structure that a schedule provides can help lessen confusion and lend comforting routine to the individual’s day.

Secondly, ensure that your loved one’s basic needs are being met. Again, this is much easier if she is in a skilled nursing or memory care environment. Make sure the patient is clean, dressed appropriately, has been fed and given enough to drink, and has had assistance with toileting. This will lower the odds that she will go wandering in order to seek food or other help for her needs.

Keep car keys out of sight. Even if it has been years since the dementia patient has driven, you simply never know when she might decide to drive somewhere. Remember that one of the hallmarks of dementia is that your loved one might not think logically. 

Do not leave your relative unattended. This is especially true when you are out together in public places, where she could easily become confused or agitated. Just because you find her a seat in the mall or department store and tell her to stay there until you return doesn’t mean she can follow those directions. 

Even at home, it’s not a good idea to leave a dementia patient alone for long periods.

Set up alert systems in the event of wandering. A bell attached to the door might suffice. Or you may wish to invest in motion sensors or GPS devices that will allow you to keep track of the dementia patient’s whereabouts.

Try camouflaging doors with wallpaper or large stickers that make them look like a bookshelf or window. Or paint them, handle and all, the same shade as the surrounding wall. 

Make a Plan In Case Wandering Happens

There are some other steps to take, to ensure that if your relative does wander, he or she can be located safely and swiftly. If the individual lives on her own, or with family members, let neighbors and local police know that she is a dementia patient at risk for wandering. Tell them the best way to handle her, should they find her out and about.

Another way to keep the patient safe is to have her wear a medic alert bracelet. This should indicate that she has dementia, as well as any other pertinent medical information.

Have a recent photograph of your relative on hand, as well as an up-to-date list of medications. This may come in handy in the event that you need to inform authorities of the wandering event. It’s also smart to make a list of potential destinations that the patient might head for. These could include former homes, workplaces, schools, places of worship, or any other place she used to frequent.

Did you know that most dementia patients who wander will turn in the direction of their dominant hand? If your loved one is right-handed, try to trace her path by turning right outside of the home or facility, and then right again at the next intersection.

However, don’t search for too long on your own before involving authorities. Fifteen minutes is the max; after that, call 911 and let them know that a “vulnerable adult” is missing. This may trigger a Silver Alert, which is like an Amber Alert for seniors.

Wrapping Up

Having a parent, spouse, or another relative who is at risk for dementia wandering can be nerve-wracking. However, knowing that you have taken every possible step to prevent wandering and that you’re aware of how to handle things if wandering does happen, should set your mind at ease.

If you are interested in Alzheimer’s or dementia care or assisted living, contact Seasons to learn about our facilities and services.