6 in 10 people with dementia will wander. A person with Alzheimer’s may not remember his or her name or address, and can become disoriented, even in familiar places. Wandering among people with dementia is dangerous. However, there are strategies and services to help prevent it.
Who is At-Risk of Wandering?
Anyone who has memory problems and can walk is at risk for wandering. Even in the early stages of dementia, a person can become disoriented or confused for a moment. It’s important to plan for this type of situation. Be aware of the following warning signs:
- Returns from a regular walk or drive later than usual
- Forgets how to get to familiar places
- Talks about fulfilling former obligations, such as going to work
- Tries or wants to “go home,” even when at home
- Is restless, paces or makes repetitive movements
- Has difficulty locating familiar places like the bathroom, bedroom or dining room
- Asks the whereabouts of past friends and family
- Acts as if doing a hobby or chore, but nothing gets done
- Acts nervous or anxious in crowded areas, such as shopping malls or restaurants.
Lower the Chances of Wandering
Even the most diligent caregivers need strategies to help lower the chances to prevent wandering:
- Carry out daily activities. Having a routine can provide structure.
- Identify the most likely times of day wandering may occur. Plan activities at that time. Activities and exercise can reduce anxiety, agitation and restlessness.
- Reassure the person if they feel 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 basic needs are met – eating, hydrating, toileting.
- Avoid busy places that confuse and cause disorientation – the mall, grocery stores.
- Place locks out of the line of sight. Install higher or lower on exterior doors and consider placing slide bolts at the top or bottom.
- Use devices that signal a door or window is opened – maybe 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 they can no longer drive. If the person is still able to drive, consider using a GPS device to help if they get lost
Make A Plan – When someone with dementia is missing search-and-rescue efforts begin immediately. Ninety-four percent of people who wander are found within 1.5 miles of where they disappeared.
The stress experienced by families and caregivers when a person with dementia wanders and becomes lost is significant. Know what to do in case of an emergency:
- Keep a list of people to call on for help. Have telephone numbers easily accessible.
- Ask neighbors, friends and family to call if they see the person alone.
- Keep a recent, close-up photo and updated medical information on hand to give to police.
- Know your neighborhood. Pinpoint dangerous areas near the home – bodies of water, open stairwells, dense foliage, tunnels, bus stops and roads with heavy traffic.
- Is the individual right or left-handed? Wandering generally follows the direction of the dominant hand.
- Keep a list of places where they may wander – former jobs, homes, places of worship, a restaurant.
- Consider enrolling the person living with dementia in a wandering response service.
- If the person does wander, search the immediate area for no more than 15 minutes. If the person is not found within 15 minutes, call 911 to file a missing person’s report. Inform the authorities that the person has dementia.
This article was adapted from Alzheimer Association 2020.