According to the Alzheimer’s Association, six in 10 individuals with this form of dementia will wander. This poses a significant risk especially when considering that Alzheimer’s often causes seniors to feel disoriented and forget common but important information such as their name, address or telephone number, making it difficult for them to return home on their own safely.
Why Wandering Occurs
A common question for family members caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s is why they wander. While the answer varies from individual to individual, five common triggers have been known to increase instances of wandering.
Delusions – individuals with Alzheimer’s often misinterpret sights and sounds. This can lead them to believe someone is in the home or waiting for them outside the home, and they then go exploring to “find” the person or cause of the misinterpretation.
Overstimulation – Noisy and crowded environments are often uncomfortable for seniors with Alzheimer’s. Being in these situations might cause them to try and escape to a more peaceful place.
Fatigue – This can be caused by too much activity (overstimulation) or too little activity. Sometimes, fatigue can be averted with healthy diet and exercise changes.
Disorientation – Individuals with Alzheimer’s sometimes do not recognize even the most familiar surroundings. This is especially common when a change to the environment, even a very small change, takes place.
Change in routine – Consistency is key to keeping seniors with Alzheimer’s comfortable and reducing the risk of wandering. Changes in caregivers, routines or surroundings can upset or confuse them, increasing instances of wandering.
Proactive Steps to Prevent Wandering
The best course of action to prevent wandering for individuals who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s is by taking a proactive approach. Preparing for the eventuality that this may happen helps to keep the senior safer and better prepares family members and other caregivers for how to react should the loved one go missing.
Safeguarding the home is one important step that can prevent wandering. Consider installing an alarm that alerts others whenever an exterior door or window is opened. Equip exterior doors with high-quality and durable locks. Whenever possible, place the locks out of eyesight requiring an additional step in the thought process before the door can be opened. If the senior knows how to unlock doors, safety covers are also available that makes it less likely the door can be opened with ease.
Sometimes the best strategy is to create a place where the senior can wander. If a fenced outdoor space is available, make it a safe haven by removing any dangerous objects, clearing pathways and equipping walkways with non-slip traction and grab bars, if necessary. Ensure that the fence is securely locked, and consider adding a gate alarm and outdoor cameras.
In the home and in any safe havens outside of the home, keep medications locked up, secure any dangerous weapons, remove tripping hazards and keep pathways well-lit. Hide car keys to reduce the temptation to drive, and never lock an individual with Alzheimer’s in the home alone or in a car without appropriate supervision.
To help bring a senior who does wander home faster, affix an ID bracelet or necklace to their person that includes the individual’s name, address, and phone number and indicates an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Also, consider enrolling the individual in MedicAlert + Alzheimer’s Association Safe Return, a free service that provides 24-hour assistance when seniors wander or go missing.
Support and Supervision
While preventing wandering is important, it is equally vital to ensure that the senior is always safe in the home and never feels abandoned. Arrange for appropriate supervision and assistance especially during times when the risk of wandering might be high, such as late afternoons and evenings. Ask family members to assist by taking shifts, or enlist the help of an accredited in home care provider such as Salus Homecare of San Fernando Valley. Constant companionship not only offers the supervision necessary to prevent wandering, but it can help a senior to maintain a more normal routine and enjoy the company of familiar faces. Taking these steps often helps the senior to feel less inclined to wander.
What to Do When a Senior with Alzheimer’s Goes Missing
Should a loved one wander away and become lost, immediate action is crucial to preventing injury or death.
- Have a list of people to call for help including family, friends, neighbors and the police. Keep a recent photo and updated medical records to share with individuals assisting in the search.
- Ask friends and neighbors to contact you immediately if they see the senior away from home alone.
- According to the Alzheimer’s Association, wanderers generally follow the direction of the dominant hand. Look in that direction first.
- Check places that the person is familiar with in the early stages of the search – a past home, former place of employment, place of worship or favorite social or eating establishment.
- When calling 911, report that a vulnerable adult or individual with Alzheimer’s has gone missing.
Individuals with Alzheimer’s deserve to maintain their highest level of independence and remain at home where they are most comfortable, but keeping them safe is always the priority. By taking appropriate steps, family members can help to prevent wandering behavior and know how to act quickly should a senior stray away from home, minimizing risks and improving quality of life.