Understanding Wandering: How to Minimize and Manage Risks

For many dementia caregivers, keeping their loved one from wandering is a difficult part of their reality. The Alzheimer’s Association® states that approximately 60 percent of individuals living with Alzheimer’s or dementia will wander at least once. If you’re a caregiver, you may have already experienced coming home, seeing your front door open and realizing that your loved one has gone … somewhere.

“Because of symptoms related to dementia, your loved one may be convinced that they need to go somewhere, and they may just go do it,” says Fred Kelly, Executive Director of Bridges® by EPOCH at Pembroke, a memory care assisted living community in Pembroke, MA. “It’s very important for caregivers and family members to recognize the triggers and potential outcomes, and to create safety measures that can help reduce the risk of wandering – and emergency plans in case they do.”


Why is your loved one wandering?

There is no one reason why someone with dementia wanders. Rather, wandering is the result of certain triggers, which can be different for each individual. Here are just a few of the reasons why someone with dementia may start wandering:

  • They’re stressed or afraid. Confusion and fear are common symptoms of dementia, and if your loved one is in a situation that seems unfamiliar, is too loud or is uncomfortable in some way, he or she will try to get away.
  • They’re looking for something. Someone with dementia will decide they want to find someone or something, and they start looking. However, they can easily get lost as they forget what they’re doing or where they’re going.
  • They’re bored. It may be that your loved one is simply bored and not finding enough entertainment or stimulation at home. Logically, they then set off to find something interesting to do … outside of the home.
  • They need to fill a basic need, like eating a snack or going to the bathroom. If your loved one needs something, he or she may simply be in search of a way to make it happen.
  • They’re following an old routine. As you know, people with dementia often remember the past much more clearly than the present. If your father is wandering, it could be because he’s going to work, like he did for the last 50 years. Your mom may be going to school, and she’s headed out so she can be on time for class.
  • They could be having trouble with vision or spatial awareness. People with dementia can get lost in familiar places because the disease is affecting the parts of their brain that handle navigation and visual guidance.


How do I know if my loved one is at risk for wandering?

Just because your loved one hasn’t wandered yet doesn’t mean he or she won’t wander in the future. Although you can never be sure exactly what will trigger your loved one to start wandering, these behaviors may be a warning sign that it could happen:

  • Your loved one talks about things they did in the past, like going to work or school.
  • He or she forgets how to get to familiar, everyday locations.
  • They’re constantly trying to “go home” even if they are currently “at home.”
  • Your loved one is acting restless, is pacing around or is displaying repetitive behavior.
  • He or she is having a hard time finding places in your home like the bathroom, their bedroom or the family room.
  • They keep asking about where certain people are, oftentimes people who have died a while ago, such as a parent or a spouse.
  • He or she looks like they’re doing an activity or a chore without actually accomplishing anything (like sweeping the same spot over and over again).
  • Your loved one is becoming nervous or anxious when you’re in a crowded, loud or overstimulating area.


How can I help prevent wandering?

The best way to prevent wandering is by looking for and understanding your loved one’s triggers and taking steps to mitigate difficult situations. Here are a few things you can do to help provide your loved one with the sense of calm, routine and engagement that they need.

  • Know the “bad times” of the day for your loved one. Often this can be later in the day, or in the evening, but it really depends on the person. Plan for something enjoyable during that time, such as a fun activity or a favorite hobby. Having something to do will provide a distraction and will help soothe your loved one’s restlessness and agitation.
  • Follow a daily routine. Individuals with dementia thrive on structure and routine, and following a set plan each day will help reduce confusion. Keeping to a set plan of activities will help provide structure and better allow your loved one to manage their day.
  • Provide constant supervision. If you keep an eye on your loved one at all times, you can stop the wandering before it even happens. Make sure that someone is always with your loved one, which may mean bringing in outside help. Be sure to stay with your loved one if they’re in a new environment.
  • Make sure your loved one’s basic needs are being met. Is she hungry or thirsty? Does he need to use the bathroom? Is he hurt somewhere, or is something uncomfortable with his clothes?
  • Disguise doors. Oftentimes, hiding the door can keep individuals from wandering. You can install curtains over the doors that can be drawn open as necessary. You can also paint doors the same color as the walls, or even simply put a sign that says something like ‘DO NOT ENTER’ on the door.
  • Install locks and alarms. There are many items on the market that can alert you when a door opens or your loved one is on the move (like pressure-sensitive alarm mats that sound when someone steps on them). Another option is to install locks out of their line of sight – such as at the top of the door or the bottom.
  • Make sure that keys, shoes, coats, hats and other items that could be associated with leaving the house are out of sight. If your loved one doesn’t see them, they might not get the idea to leave.


What happens if my loved one does wander?

Of course, you’re not superhuman, and it’s possible that your loved one will wander even if you’re doing everything right. That’s why it’s always good to prepare for the worst and make sure you have a plan in place.

Have your loved one wear an ID tag or bracelet, and make sure to let neighbors and nearby businesses that your loved one wanders. You may even wish to give them a picture for reference. Make sure these people and places have your cell phone number so they can call you immediately if they see your loved one.

If you notice your loved one is missing, begin searching immediately (and be sure to call 911). The majority of individuals with dementia are found within two miles of wherever they originally disappeared. Be sure to check dangerous areas first thing (like bus stops, bodies of water, cliffs or balconies, etc.). Another great spot to start is along roads, since most people with dementia start wandering on a road and will stay nearby. Then, check for familiar and favorite spots, since your loved one may have a specific destination in mind.

Finally, make sure you sign up for the Alzheimer’s Association’s Medic Alert and Safe Return Program®, a nation-wide identification system that was designed to help locate and rescue lost individuals with dementia. This can provide you with a wide range of assistance quickly and efficiently.


Expert, Life-Enriching Memory Care

Bridges® by EPOCH at Pembroke provides memory care assisted living that is comfortable, positive, safe and engaging. Exclusively dedicated to caring for those with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, our community promotes a wellness-focused lifestyle that emphasizes dignity and individual preferences. Our memory care professionals receive specialized, ongoing training designed to help residents maximize their independence in a secure, calm environment – making a truly positive impact on the lives of our residents.


 Inspiring Programs for All Stages

Bridges® by EPOCH at Pembroke’s services are designed to recognize and adapt to the unique challenges and individuality of each resident, while ensuring comfort and safety. We believe in a full-service approach to care and provide personalized attention and programming for residents in every stage of memory loss.


Purposefully Designed Community

Within a beautiful residential design, Bridges® by EPOCH at Pembroke provides everything residents with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia need to enjoy comfort, familiarity and security. Soft colors, directional cues, aromatherapy and interactive life stations create a soothing and secure environment where residents feel at home.


Contact us today to learn more.