For people with dementia, wandering can be a major problem, especially if that person wanders outside of the home or away from caregivers in a public place. Serious consequences can occur if a person with dementia remains lost for an extended period, including illness or death, from hazards like exposure, lack of medication, stress, crime and vehicular traffic. Whether your loved one wanders inside the home or in the open air, caregivers are advised to do all they can to minimize this potentially dangerous behavior.
While it is difficult to ensure your loved one with dementia never wanders, there are many steps you can take to minimize the risk. Beginning with an in-depth analysis of possible causes, they follow below:
Determine The Source
There are some potential factors to consider when trying to identify any possible triggers for a person with dementia’s wandering activities. Some points to weigh include:
- Has anything changed? If the wandering activity is a relatively new behavior, recent changes in patterns, medications, lifestyles and/or surroundings may be the cause. In particular, recent changes that have caused stress or frustration can often be the culprit (i.e. moving or switching caregivers).
- Is your loved one bored? Wandering can also be the result of simply not keeping busy enough, leading to boredom and restlessness. Make regular plans for your loved one to enjoy some supervised outside time, as well as social interaction with others. Keep your loved one occupied during the day with a range of activities like sorting items (laundry is great for this), watching relaxing video content, talking with others and working on craft projects.
- Identify Patterns. Reasons for your loved one’s wandering can also be revealed through patterns. Sometimes dementia sufferers wander at mealtimes if they are hungry and thirsty, or at night if they feel lonely or afraid. People with dementia may also wander when recreating former routines, like past jobs and daily responsibilities.
There are actions you can take to reduce or remove triggers for wandering. They include:
- Stick to Open Space. Crowds, shopping malls, fairs, etc., can be a trigger for dementia-related wandering, by causing stress on your loved one that will propel them to wander later. It is also easier and safer from a caregiver’s perspective to supervise your loved one in a more controlled environment, away from large groups and gatherings.
- Hide The Keys. In some cases, dementia sufferers may be inclined to attempt to drive, based on past patterns and routines. Visually, seeing car keys can trigger this activity, so it’s best to keep the key ring out of sight and easy access.
Play It Safe
Since you can’t control everything all the time, there are other steps you can take to ensure that if/when your loved one with dementia does wander, the safety risks are minimized. Some key measures are:
- Use nightlights. These can be especially helpful for illuminating the paths through the home you’d like your loved one to walk through, namely high-traffic rooms and hallways.
- Clear the path. Remove any dangerous obstacles your loved one can potentially trip over while wandering. Some common hazards include throw rugs, clutter, houseplants, magazine racks, wastebaskets and obstructive furniture.
- Childproofing isn’t just for kids. Childproof locks are great for preventing access to rooms where your loved one might encounter danger, such as stairways, utility rooms and doors leading outside. Block/lock sliding glass doors as well.
- Change it up. If your loved one has been in the home for some time, they may be accustomed to the locks and doorknobs in the house. If you change the locks to a different style or mechanism, your loved one may no longer be able to operate the new locks.
- Hang signs. A simple sign reading “Do Not Enter” on an exit door or other no-go area can be very effective at keeping out the wandering person with dementia.
- Be present. Don’t let your loved one spend time outside alone. It’s too easy for them to become confused and wander off if unsupervised.
- Parked cars aren’t a safe space. Even if you’re just running a quick errand, leaving your loved one alone in your parked car is a recipe for trouble. They can quickly panic or become agitated, then wander off.
Gathering the help of others in your support system can be a great strategy for managing your loved one’s wandering. Some actions to take include:
- Enlist daycare/professionals. If you’re the primary caregiver and need to leave the house from time to time, utilize daycare and/or professional care services. It’s not safe to leave your loved one home alone, even for short periods of time.
- Inform others. Ensure your neighbors are aware that you are caring for someone with dementia. Have them notify you if they see your loved one wandering, or if they interact with them while they are out wandering.
There are specialized tools and equipment caregivers can utilize in order to aid, prevent and respond to your loved one’s wandering. Some gear to investigate:
- Hidden doorways. In addition to altering/childproofing door locks, there are other ways to dissuade your loved one from using doors you want to steer them away from. Try visually camouflaging dangerous doorways with mirrors, murals, posters and paint that matches the surrounding walls.
- Motion sensors. There are various types of alarms that can be set up to warn caregivers when your loved one is on the move. Chair or bed pads with remote alarm sensors are both effective and inexpensive. There are also alarm-equipped floor mats, motion detectors and door chimes that can help alert caregivers when loved ones have wandered off.
Regardless of how many preventative steps caregivers may take, it’s still crucial to be prepared in the event loved ones do manage to wander. Don’t forget practical preparations such as:
- Dress for safety. Remember what your loved one is wearing each day, in the event you need to offer a description should they go missing. Dressing your loved one in bright colors can help, making them easier to identify by searchers.
- Have a recent photo. It’s important to have a recent photo of your loved one on hand, in the event they go missing. Focus on the practicality of the photo, and not the aesthetics.
- Use identification. Have your loved one wear identification—often in the form of a bracelet or other type of jewelry—with their name, your phone number, and the disease they are suffering from.
- The Safe Return program can help. Sponsored by the Alzheimer’s Association, the Safe Return program shares the enrolled person’s identification with local law enforcement, while also providing an ID bracelet and clothing tags that display an 800-number people can call if they find the enrolled person wandering.