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Preventing and Managing Dementia Wandering

Important: If you are reading this article because an elderly loved one has wandered off and you can’t find them, please call 911 immediately. Do not wait 24 hours or even 30 minutes – every second is crucial to returning your loved one home safe and sound. Be sure to inform the police that the missing person has dementia.

Dementia wandering is common among people with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.

Wandering can occur due to the changes in the brain caused by dementia. Older adults will often wander with a particular destination in mind, but the disorientation can cause them to get lost and have difficulty finding their way home.

People may also wander because their environment has become uncomfortable, and they want to escape the discomfort. They might also be trying to visit a place that once brought them joy, such as a childhood home, school, or playground.

Understanding and accommodating wandering 

To manage dementia wandering, we must try to understand the person behind the behaviour. Listen, observe, and assess by asking yourself these questions:

  • When did this start?
  • How often do they wander? 
  • Why do they wander?
  • Is there a trigger causing this behaviour?
  • Has anything changed physically, mentally, socially, or otherwise around them recently?
  • Are they wandering with a goal of going somewhere or searching for something (active wandering), or pacing aimlessly (passive wandering)?
  • Are they in any danger when they wander?

Once you understand the wandering and the why, see if you can accommodate their wandering. Walking outdoors with them, listening to their stories, and enjoying time together would be a great experience for both of you. You can also clear a pathway inside the home so they can pace safely inside. Doing so will give them great exercise and a sense of independence. 

If the wandering can’t be accommodated or needs to be controlled, there are ways you can help manage or prevent it from happening.

8 tips to prevent dementia wandering

It’s possible to proactively reduce the risks and dangers involved by following these eight tips:

  1. Monitor your loved one: People in the early stages of dementia can sometimes be left alone for short periods, but ongoing supervision will become necessary to keep the person safe as the disease progresses. Take shifts with family and close friends to stay the person, or hire in-home care professionals when you can’t be there.
  1. Hide trigger items: Be sure to keep hints of leaving home out of sight. This includes car keys, store flyers, or anything else that might suggest that your loved one needs to go somewhere.
  1. Obscure doors: Neutral floor mats, wallpaper, or paint that match the room’s décor will help hide exit points and deter wandering.
  1. Install alarms and warning bells: Alarms, warning bells, and motion-detection devices at all exit points – including windows – so you’re immediately alerted when someone tries to leave their safe environment. If using sliding locks, install them above the person’s line of sight so they won’t be tempted to unlock them.
  1. Keep the person engaged: Provide activities that are mentally, physically, and creatively stimulating. This will prevent boredom and the temptation to wander.
  1. Use redirection: Redirection is a valuable strategy to distract the person from otherwise dangerous activity. For example, if they’re thinking of going outside, ask them what they would like to do first when they get home. Then you can start a conversation about that activity and start doing it.
  1. Keep a calm environment: Avoid loud noises and overstimulation during the times of day when the older adult expresses a desire to wander. 
  1. Enter their moment: Talk to the senior about the place they want to go to, such as an old family home, or what things they would like to do. Go through the photo album of the old house and talk about it. Listen to their stories. Instead of trying to re-orient them to our reality, accept and join them in theirs.

Strategies to help manage nighttime dementia wandering

Nighttime wandering is a common risk for people with dementia, especially if they are experiencing sundowning. Try the below tips to help prevent your elderly loved one from wandering during the night:

  1. Establish a routine: Maintaining regular times for eating, waking up, and going to bed is very beneficial to the health and safety of your loved one. Be sure a family member or caregiver is on-hand to help establish and reinforce the routine.
  1. Create a safe living space: Use nightlights and arrows or signs to help your elderly loved one navigate around the home at night. You can also use locks and latches to prevent the person from wandering out of their space, but be sure they still have access to the bathroom, water, or snacks.
  1. Use bed alarms: Install alarms in the person’s bed to alert you if the person gets up during the night. 
  1. Create safe distraction: Leave a book, tablet, or other forms of distraction that can be enjoyed in bed on the nightstand in case the older adult wakes and feels bored.
  1. Manage stimulants and liquids: Avoid allowing the person to consume alcohol or caffeine, and limit liquids in the hours before sleep.
  1. Carefully manage medications: Talk to the person’s doctor about any  prescription or over-the-counter medications might lead to insomnia. Sleeping pills are generally  not recommended due to the increased risk of falls and confusion.

Managing someone who wanders

Despite your best efforts, your loved one might still wander. It’s crucial to have an action plan in place to help find the wanderer quickly and get them back home safely.

Here are six things you can do to help prepare for and respond to a wandering emergency:

  1. Create important document packages: Important document packages contain vital information about your loved one to help locate them quickly in an emergency. They should be shared with caregivers and PSWs, and given to police if your loved one is missing. The packages should contain:
  • A recent headshot of the person
  • List of emergency contacts (friends, family, and caregivers)
  • Important medical information
  • A list of particulars that detail past wandering episodes
  • Places the person might wander to such as former homes, jobs, places of worship, schools, or favourite restaurants and stores 
  • People and places the person has mentioned while having dementia symptoms 
  • You can also give the package to your local police department, so it’s on file if they get a report of an older adult seeming lost, confused, or in danger
  1. Talk to your neighbours: Ask your neighbours and friends to call you if they see the older adult out wandering alone.
  1. Get familiar with the neighbourhood: Knowing the local area’s landmarks will help you save time if someone wanders off. Identify familiar places your loved one might wander to, know where the bus stops and train stations are, and pinpoint areas that can pose a danger, such as high-traffic areas and bodies of water. Also, people tend to wander in the direction of their dominant hand, so know if your loved one is right or left-handed.
  1. Use GPS tracking: GPS tracking technology offers many options to help locate someone who may be wandering. These small devices are available in watches, can be installed in shoes, or attached to clothing for your peace of mind.
  1. Call 911: The longer your loved one is missing, the chances of a positive outcome decrease. If you suspect your loved one has gone wandering, search the immediate area for 15 minutes and call the police. Tell them that your loved one has dementia and share the important document package if they don’t already have it.
  1. Get a Medic-Alert bracelet: Have your loved one wear this bracelet specially designed to help wanderers get home safely.

By proactively taking steps to minimize the chances of dementia wandering, you’re helping keep your elderly loved ones safe from harm and adding to the joy and fulfillment they deserve during their vintage years.If you have any questions about dementia wandering or would like to learn more about our comprehensive in-home Alzheimer’s disease and dementia care services, please get in touch with our team anytime.

About the Author

Michael Lu is the founder of CareHop, specializing in providing compassionate support for individuals and families touched by Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

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