Wandering is a very real issue for many people living with cognitive impairment, and therefore a big concern for their caregivers and other loved ones.
What Causes Wandering?
People typically associate wandering with Alzheimer’s disease, but it can also occur in people living with the after effects of a stroke, Parkinson’s disease, dementia, autism spectrum disorder and head injuries.
The cause for wandering in someone living with Alzheimer’s disease or another dementia-related illness, according to the Mayo Clinic, might be:
- Anxiety, stress or fear in response to feeling overstimulated and confused. A loud noise could be a trigger, for example.
- Boredom. The individual may be looking for something to do and start by leaving the house.
- Searching. The person may be looking for someone or something and become distracted and lost.
- Following past routines. Someone may still be accustomed to going to work or heading to the grocery store at a certain time of day.
How to Prevent Wandering
It’s not possible, or advisable, that one person try to keep an eye on another every second of the day and night. A caregiver needs to factor in their own wellbeing and prevent their own stress and anxiety about their loved one wandering off.
First, notice if this person is wandering at the same day each day or when there is a certain activity or event occurring. If it appears that a person living with dementia is bored, come up with meaningful activities to keep them engaged. Keep in mind that what is meaningful to the caregiver might not be to the care receiver. Ask the individual or their family what brought this person joy: was it putting puzzles together? Was it fishing at a local pond? There might be a need for adaptation such as watching golf instead of playing golf.
Play detective to see if there is an underlying cause such as hunger or thirst, which can be addressed by providing a cup of water in the bedroom, so they don’t need to head for the kitchen in the dark of night.
Consider increasing physical activity during the day so that the individual is tired and will be more likely to sleep through the night. This can be as simple as a walk around the block together, for those who are able.
Other tips for making the home itself secure even if the wandering continues include:
- Put signs on doors or disguise them. A “do not enter” sign may be enough for someone to turn back, or a curtain hung over a door to make it look like a window can be a distraction from exiting.
- Install nightlights and label rooms (or doors to rooms) so that the bathroom, for example, can easily be found at all times. Consider using a photo of the room on the label, not just a word.
- Secure possible tripping hazards such as throw rugs to minimize risk for injury.
If there is still a concern that someone will wander away during a public outing, such as a trip to the grocery store or church, consider a tracking device that they wear at all times. There are different types of devices; some might be able to pinpoint a location and others may give a signal when the person gets beyond a certain distance away.
The Alzheimer’s Association has partnered with MedicAlert® to create the Safe Return® program. This offers caregivers a 24-hour hotline to call when someone wanders away and cannot be found. The person living with impairment will have to wear a bracelet that includes identifying information.
The Mayo Clinic recommends contacting authorities immediately if a loved one wanders away and is not quickly found.