So, what does this mean?
In the year 2016, an older woman who lived in California wandered off while picking avocados in her family’s orchard. Due to her mental condition, Alzheimer’s – which causes disorientation and confusion, the woman was not able to make her way back home. 3 long days later, rescuers finally found her asleep under an avocado tree with nothing but some brush covering her cold body. She was tired and very dehydrated, but luckily she was found alive.
In this article, we will help you better understand Alzheimer’s disease and the potential for wandering, as well as how to help your senior loved one who struggles from this memory condition.
People Who are at Risk of Wandering?
The truth is, anyone who has memory problems and is able to walk is at risk for wandering.
Individuals who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease fall under the same memory “umbrella”. Dementia is a broad medical category, used to describe people with a decline in memory or other language or cognitive abilities. There are over 100 forms of dementia, with Alzheimer’s disease accounting for 60% to 80% of all cases. People with certain conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, autism, head injuries, stroke, or down syndrome may also be at risk for wandering.
Here are some warning signs you should look out for, if you’re concerned a loved one may be at risk of wandering:
- Often forgets how to get to familiar locations
- Talks about how they need to “go to work”, or some other former obligation of theirs
- Attempts or says they want to go home, even if they are at home
- Comes home from a regular drive or walk later than they normally do
- Performs repetitive movements, is restless or paces a lot
- Is unable to find the bathroom, bedroom or dining room in familiar places
- Asks where a friend or family member is, even after they’ve passed away
- Acts anxious or confused in public places, like the mall or grocery store
Why do People Wander?
There are many different reasons why someone with dementia may wander. To better understand what might trigger this event, we’ve listed some common causes below:
- They’re experiencing a lot of stress or fear – If the environment is overstimulating or unfamiliar, your loved one may resort to wandering around. Same goes for situations they don’t understand or hearing loud sounds that startle them.
- In search – If your loved one is searching for something or someone, they may wander and get lost in the process.
- They are bored – If they have nothing to do and are experiencing boredom, the chances of wandering may increase.
- Needs aren’t met – Looking for toilet paper, food, or some other basic need can end up wandering about in search of it.
- Past routines – An episode of wandering can be triggered by past routines, such as going to work, doing chores, or grocery shopping.
People with Alzheimer’s often feel restless, with a desire to go out and do things. They may feel the need to go to work, pick their kids up from school, or go to the shopping mall. Often it does not matter the time of day, if they have the ability to get out of the house, they will. From there, the wandering happens – all due to their itching desire to move.
Those who wander are usually overcome with the desire to go back to their childhood home, where they are safe, where their mom and dad are, their siblings and their dog. It is an environment that no longer exists, but due to their memory condition, they don’t realize that.
Coping Strategies for Wanderers
First and foremost, you should try and determine the reason, or emotion being expressed by the wanderer. This could be feelings of anxiety, fear, or insecurity among others. If the individual is expressing a strong need to “go home”, try and figure out why. What connects them to their childhood home? Are there ways to make their home more inviting? Do they have unresolved issues that need to be worked out through counseling?
It’s best if the individual struggling with dementia is in an environment that is warm and welcoming, but does not remind them of their childhood home. If there are objects, furniture, or other constant reminders of their youth and growing up, it’s best to have those removed.
If you’re with them at the time when they are trying to wander off, try and distract them by participating in a different activity they enjoy. You could also go for a walk together to get fresh air and stretch out your legs. Another good idea is to make them their favorite treat or dessert, and enjoy it together with a cup of tea.
In regards to a person with Alzheimer’s wanting to go back to their childhood home – you should never argue or contradict their desire for home. Instead, do your best to reassure the individual of your love for them, and that they are safe with you as you will always take good care of them.
How to Reduce the Risk of Wandering
Fact: No one is going to be able to fully and completely prevent a person living with dementia from wandering. It just isn’t possible, even if you could spend every waking moment with them, they could still find a time to sneak past you and leave. Always do your best to help, but remember that you cannot control their every action.
Now, let’s talk about how you can reduce the risk of wandering. It’s important to try all you can to ensure that solutions are enforced which honor the person’s independence and freedom. Of course, the approach you go with will vary from person to person, and situation to situation. What’s appropriate and sufficient for one person, may not work for another. The physical environment in which the individual lives will also play a factor in how you deal with the situation.
Here are some ways to help reduce wandering with Alzheimer’s:
- If the person has wandered before, make sure to keep a record of where they wander off to. Look for a pattern within the record, this can give you a good idea of what is triggering their behavior and where to find them if they try and do it again.
- It’s a good idea to keep items such as keys, jackets and shoes out of plain sight.
- You could consider having alarms installed that can warn you of when a door or window opens.
- Often, persons with dementia will wander at night – this is known as “sundowning”.
- Make an appointment with the person’s doctor to review the medications they are taking. Sometimes a certain medication can increase the risk of delusions and confusion – which causes wandering in the first place. As a last resort, you can ask their doctor about medication options made to help prevent wandering in dementia patients.
- Since agitation is one of the main causes for wandering, try and encourage the person to participate in regular physical activity. This can help reduce the antsy feelings they’re experiencing.
- If it becomes a major issue, consider informing the neighbors, police, and local stores about the wandering problem at hand. If they see the person wandering and recognize him or her, they may be able to help.
Make a Plan
When a patient with dementia wanders and becomes lost, both the family and caregivers suffer from significant stress and worry. It’s essential that you all get together and create a plan before this happens, so that you’re prepared in case of an emergency.
Here are some points to discuss when making an emergency plan for a loved one with dementia, who’s at risk for wandering:
- Reach out to neighbors, family and friends with the request to have them call you if they see the person wandering or outside alone. Additionally, ask them to reach out if the person appears to be confused.
- Compile a list of contacts with names and numbers to call in case of an emergency, or to ask for help. This list should be easily accessible to all those related to, or in contact with the person who struggles with some form of dementia.
- Always have a recent, up-close photo of the person with their medical information on hand if you need to give it to police for reference.
- Get to know the neighborhood where your loved one with potential to wander lives. It’s a good idea to point out areas of danger, such as open stairwells, dense foliage or forest-like areas, open bodies of water, tunnels, bus stops and roads with heavy traffic.
- If the person has wondered before, keep a list of where they tend to wander off to. In addition, keep a list of areas or places the person may end up wandering to. This can include previous places of employment, places of worship, their favorite restaurant, or locations that they may have frequently visited in previous years.
- Ask yourself: Is this person left or right handed? Believe it or not, studies have shown that dementia patients tend to wander in the general direction of their dominant hand. Keep that in mind if they’ve wandered, as you are searching for them.
- Have you ever heard of a wandering response team? Consider educating yourself on this service and enroll the individual with memory issues in it for extra help.
- If the person does end up wandering, call 911. They will file a missing persons report and inform authorities that the person has dementia and if found, needs help.
If an Episode of Wandering Occurs
When a person living with dementia is lost, it can be nearly impossible to remain calm. In a state like this, it also becomes increasingly difficult to think clearly. Just remember, you’re not alone in this. There are many people who are going through the same struggle and worry as you are.
When a person with dementia goes missing, it is a very serious emergency. A quick response to this occurrence is the best and most helpful reaction you can offer. As previously mentioned, the minute you realize the person is missing, contact police and notify neighbors and local stores/restaurants. Look at credit and debit card transaction histories if you’re coming up empty.
Most wandering stories have a good ending. You can be a good Samaritan by reporting a missing person, if you happen to come across an elderly person wandering around. There is no need to be hesitant when it comes to approaching a senior who appears to be in a confused state. Always approach the topic gently, but do your best to plan ahead in case of a wandering emergency.