Peace of Mind, Step by Step: A Guide to Wandering

Monday, June 03, 2024

Wandering is a common behavior among individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. According to the Alzheimer’s Association®, six in ten people with dementia will wander at least once during their journeys. But what exactly is wandering, and why does it happen?

As a caregiver, understanding the triggers and dangers of wandering are crucial for ensuring the safety of your loved one. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the intricacies of wandering, from its connection to dementia to practical tips for reducing the risk and keeping your loved one safe.

What Is Wandering and How Is It Connected to Dementia?

Wandering in dementia involves aimlessly moving about without purpose, posing safety risks for individuals and caregivers. Linked to cognitive decline, this behavior can emerge as cognitive function declines over time. It is often driven by factors such as disorientation, memory loss, unmet needs, restlessness, and past routines.

Recognizing the triggers that may cause your loved one to wander is vital for implementing effective interventions to address the behavior before it happens to enhance the safety and well-being of individuals with dementia.

senior man sitting on a park bench aloneWho Is at Risk for Wandering?

Certain factors heighten the risk of wandering among individuals with dementia, such as the advanced stage of the condition, prior instances of wandering, restlessness, sleep disruptions, specific medications, and changes in their environment. When caregivers and healthcare professionals know these factors, they can implement proactive measures to mitigate wandering risks effectively.

How Can You Recognize the Warning Signs of Wandering?

Recognizing the signs of wandering is crucial for preventing potentially dangerous situations. Some common signs that an individual may be at risk of wandering include:

1. Restlessness or Agitation

Individuals may exhibit signs of restlessness, pacing or agitation, indicating a desire to move or explore. The person could be stressed or anxious from an overstimulating environment, such as a crowded area or restaurant. The agitation could be a fear response to something they saw or heard – or a perceived threat, such as a stranger coming to visit the house.

2. Disorientation

Confusion about time, place or people, as well as difficulty recognizing familiar surroundings, may precede wandering episodes. A person can get lost even in well-known places because dementia affects the part of the brain that is critical for visual guidance and navigation.

3. Attempting to Leave

Individuals may express a desire to “go home” even when they are already in a familiar environment, or they may attempt to leave a building or wander outside without a clear purpose. The individual may talk about former obligations, such as going to work or needing to go shopping. They also may be unable to retain instructions to wait for someone to return home or to stay in the car, for example.

4. Search Behaviors

Wandering individuals may engage in repetitive search behaviors, such as opening doors or cabinets, as if looking for something or someone. They could also be searching for something to fulfill a need, such as food or a bathroom.

5. Changes in Routine

Sudden changes in routine or behavior, including wandering at times when the individual is typically inactive, may indicate an increased risk of wandering.

Caregivers and family members should remain vigilant and observant of these signs, especially in individuals with dementia, and take proactive steps to address wandering behaviors.

What Are the Dangers of Wandering?

Wandering poses serious risks for individuals with dementia. Those who wander may become lost and could face medical emergencies, dehydration or exhaustion. Wandering into hazardous areas could also lead to falls, accidents or exposure to extreme weather.

Addressing the dangers of wandering requires a multifaceted approach that includes implementing preventive measures, educating caregivers and community members, and developing strategies to support individuals with dementia and their families.

How Can You Reduce the Risk of Wandering?

Reducing the risk of wandering requires a comprehensive approach that addresses the underlying factors contributing to this behavior. Some strategies to consider include:

1. Establishing a Routine

Maintaining a consistent daily routine can provide structure and familiarity, reducing the likelihood of disorientation and wandering. To reduce nighttime wandering, try to keep your loved one on a regular schedule and reduce napping during the day. Try to cut out caffeinated drinks and reduce fluids before bedtime. If overnight hunger or thirst tends to be an issue, try putting a glass of water or crackers on a bedside table.

2. Supervision and Monitoring

Providing close supervision and monitoring, especially during times when wandering is more likely to occur, can help prevent wandering episodes and ensure the individual’s safety.

Consider a wearable GPS tracking device for your loved one or consider enrolling in a wandering response service. You can also be prepared by informing neighbors and the local police department that you have a loved one with dementia living in your home.

3. Environmental Modifications

Making modifications to the home environment can help to reduce the risk of wandering. Some ideas are:

  • Concealing exterior doors by painting them the same color as the walls, using “Do Not Enter” signs, or covering them with a removable curtain
  • Placing door locks out of the line of sight or installing door alarm
  • Securing windows and gates with locks
  • Using video cameras at entry and exit points
  • Monitor noise levels to help reduce overstimulation
  • Hide away items that may trigger a person’s desire to leave, such as keys, wallets, hats or coats

4. Engaging in Meaningful Activities

Keeping individuals with dementia engaged in meaningful activities and social interactions can help reduce restlessness and boredom, lowering the risk of wandering.

5. Medication Management

Working closely with healthcare providers to manage medications and minimize side effects that may contribute to confusion or disorientation can help reduce the risk of wandering.

What Should I Do If My Loved One Wanders?

Remember to keep your emergency contact information updated and accessible in the event of an emergency. It is best to have a plan in place before an emergency occurs. In the event a loved one does wander:

  1. Notify the police immediately by calling 911. Be sure to indicate that they have dementia.
  2. Inform neighbors for assistance.
  3. Check all local areas thoroughly and notify local businesses.
  4. Look at locations your loved one visits frequently.
  5. Use social media when applicable.

By taking prompt action and enlisting the support of others, you can increase the likelihood of locating your loved one safely and minimizing the potential risks associated with wandering.

senior woman hugging her adult daughter outside

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