People living with Alzheimer’s and dementia are prone to wandering, which often puts them at risk. As temperatures continue to drop this winter, the risks increase exponentially. Six in 10 people with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia will wander, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. It is one of the most unsettling behavioral changes common for someone with Alzheimer’s disease, yet it often surprises family caregivers and can end with tragic results. “Most people with dementia wander with a purpose and are trying to get somewhere,” said Jean Barnas, program director for the Alzheimer’s Association Michigan Chapter. “Wandering can happen in the early, middle or late stages of the disease as people experience losses in judgment and orientation. It can also happen if they are still driving or have access to car keys. They may drive away and not know how to get back.”
In order to help, the Alzheimer’s Association has a 24/7 Helpline that takes calls from concerned caregivers and family members. “Wandering among people with dementia is dangerous — especially during Michigan’s cold winter months — but there are strategies and services to help prevent it,” continued Barnas.
In order to prevent wandering, the Alzheimer’s Association suggests the following tips:
- Have a routine for daily activities.
- Identify the most likely times of day that wandering may occur. Plan activities at that time. Activities and exercise can reduce anxiety, agitation, and restlessness.
- Reassure the person if he or she feels lost, abandoned, or disoriented. If the person with dementia wants to leave to “go home” or “go to work,” use communication focused on exploration and validation. Refrain from correcting the person. For example, “We are staying here tonight. We are safe and I’ll be with you. We can go home in the morning after a good night’s rest.”
- Ensure all basic needs are met. Has the person gone to the bathroom? Is he or she thirsty or hungry?
- Avoid busy places that are confusing and can cause disorientation.
- Place locks out of the line of sight. Install either high or low on exterior doors and consider placing slide bolts at the top or bottom.
- Use devices that signal when a door or window is opened. This can be as simple as a bell placed above a door or as sophisticated as an electronic home alarm.
- Provide supervision. Do not leave someone with dementia unsupervised in new or changed surroundings. Never lock a person in at home or leave him or her in a car alone.
- Keep car keys out of sight. If the person is no longer driving, remove access to car keys — a person with dementia may not just wander by foot. The person may forget that he or she can no longer drive. If the person is still able to drive, consider using a GPS device to help if they get lost.
The most important thing for caregivers, according to Barnas, is to have a plan in place in case of an emergency. “It is important to even start with a diagnosis as soon as warning signs appear,” Barnas said. “Then include the person diagnosed in their own plan of care, and this can include safety plans. Safety plans may include, for example, keeping a list of people to call on for help, a list of where the person may wander, and a recent close-up photo and updated medical information to give to police. They may also include tracking devices or apps, as well as a MedicAlert membership plan, which helps first responders and families reconnect with individuals living with dementia who experience a medical emergency or have wandered.”
Individuals needing advice or assistance should call the Alzheimer’s Association’s 24/7 Helpline at 800-272-3900 or visit alz.org/gmc.