depressed older woman looking out windowIt’s common for seniors with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia to not always recognize once-familiar people and locations. This symptom of the disease can cause them to become confused and wander, possibly in search of something or someone identifiable.

Wandering is a serious, potentially life-threatening event for people with dementia. It can expose them to dangerous weather conditions, increases fall risks and subsequent injuries. During these episodes, also called “elopement”, loved ones can experience distress as they search for their lost family member.

If you’re caring for someone with Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia, understand why and how wandering happens and what you can do to prepare.

Why Dementia Patients Wander

The exact cause has yet to be understood but wandering is often attributed to multiple overlapping factors. The person may be:

  • Attempting to return to a favorite place or activity.
  • Experiencing confusion, stress, agitation or restlessness.
  • Following a previous routine – for instance, commuting to a job they no longer have.
  • Looking for “home” – the house where they grew up or used to live with a spouse.

Dementia alters cells in the part of the brain affecting memory and spatial skills. These cognitive changes can mean someone experiences difficulties remembering a destination or following directions. If a route has been changed or detoured, a person with dementia could return later than expected from a planned trip or forget where they are going.

Along with these factors, wandering can also result from:

  • Dementia-related visual changes affecting how someone navigates a space
  • Being unable to retain and follow simple directions
  • Difficulty following a new routine

Risks for Dementia Wandering

Your loved one may be at risk for wandering if they:

  • Talk about going to work, despite being retired, or visiting someone who has died
  • No longer recognize surroundings, including their own home
  • Need reminders about traveling to familiar locations
  • Experience difficulties focusing on tasks, including hobbies, chores and paying bills
  • Go for a walk or drive and return hours later
  • Become easily confused in a crowded location like a restaurant

How to Prevent Wandering

If you’re concerned about a loved one with dementia wandering, you’re recommended to:

  • Make Schedules: In the early stages of Alzheimer’s or dementia, create a routine for appointments and activities of daily living.
  • Secure Your Home: Add locks and alarms to doors and windows, doorknob covers, and keep car keys in a secure, inaccessible location.
  • Rethink Home Design: Add motion-sensitive lights throughout the home and slip-resistant mats. Also keep items that could influence them to leave, including handbags and wallets, out of sight.
  • Avoid Leaving Them Alone: Make sure someone accompanies your loved one to the store, doctor appointments, and on walks or car trips. Your loved one should also wear a location-tracking device.
  • Keep Them Engaged and Occupied: This starts with sufficient sleep, exercise and activities for mental stimulation. Make sure they’re still involved in daily tasks, including laundry and cooking. Activities should coincide with times they are at risk for wandering.
  • Pay Attention to Their Diet: Avoid having them eat or drink anything for at least two hours before bed. Also notify the doctor of any wandering risks or habits.
  • Avoid or Limit Certain Locations: This includes busy, crowded locations where they may easily become disoriented. Provide guidance and reassurance if you have to go to one of these locations and avoid leaving them unsupervised during the trip.
  • Limit Driving: If your loved one can no longer drive due to wandering or physical risks, make sure car keys cannot be easily found. If they’re still able to drive, a GPS can offer more guidance and structure.

What to Do If Your Loved One Wanders

If your loved one walks off and becomes lost:

  • Call 911 immediately, before starting your search.
  • Have a list of people ready to call who may know your loved one’s whereabouts.
  • Consider where they could have gone, based on location, previous wandering episodes and common memories.
  • Use any location tracking devices you have enabled.
  • Keep an up-to-date photo of your loved one on-hand for identification.

If your loved one has started to experience wandering episodes, choose Avon Health Center for long-term care. To learn more about our services, contact us today.