Dementia Safety – What You Need To Know About Wandering
Do All Dementia Patients wander? Depending on the source, wandering is thought to occur in between 15% and 60% of dementia cases. Wandering and getting lost can occur in any person who has memory problems including Alzheimer’s Disease.
It is important to plan ahead and look out for the signs of dangerous wandering behavior.
Why Do They Wander? Wandering is thought to occur because the individual is bored or is seeking to “return to home”, usually a home they knew 15-20 years ago. Even if they are home, they may have a desire to be elsewhere. Some experts believe this is because the individual is seeking a place of comfort, familiarity, and freedom from confusion. Individuals may also wander out of boredom, or a need for stimulation. They may lack sufficient structure in their daily routines, sleep during the day, eat at odd hours, and they may lack purpose during their waking hours. These conditions may provoke a feeling of anxiety and trigger wandering behavior.
What are the Signs and Symptoms? Wandering behavior can occur at any stage of the dementia disease. Some early warning signs include the individual coming home later than usual from a scheduled walk, showing restlessness or pacing, or having difficulty locating familiar places like their bedroom or the bathroom. They may say they’re “going home” even though they are home.
Why Worry? Wandering can be dangerous. Most wandering seniors are found within 1 1/2 miles from their homes, but deaths due to exposure to the elements are not uncommon.
How Can We Keep our Loved One Safe?
- First, make sure all your loved one’s needs are met–that they are not hungry, that they have been to the bathroom, they have a routine which includes normal get-up and go-to-bed times, meal times, and planned activities. If you are still seeing wandering behaviors you can try other measures.
- Avoid confusing locations like restaurants and shopping malls as these locations can overwhelm a person with dementia, leaving them tired and more confused, perhaps triggering wandering behavior.
- Place locks or latches on the doors out of sight–on the top of the door or at the bottom, rather than by the door knob. (Be sure the individual is not left alone in a home which is locked from the inside in such a way, as he may not be able to exit alone in the event of an emergency.)
- Place a sign on the door saying something like “JOHN, STOP! DO NOT EXIT!”
- Do not try to reason or argue with someone with dementia! When redirecting him away from the door, say something like “we’ll stay here tonight then take you home in the morning”. With his mind at ease he is more likely to calm down and give up on his intent to wander.
- There are also reasonably-priced home alarms available which can alert a caregiver to when the door is being opened. See www.SmartCaregiver.com for the many products available.
- Research has shown that anti-psychotic medications like Seroquel or Risperidol have shown moderate effect in affecting wandering behavior. Ask your family doctor about the use of medication.
- If night wandering is a problem, restrict fluids two hours before the senior goes to bed, and remind him to empty his bladder right before going to bed.
- Lastly, if a senior’s wandering and elopement continues to pose a risk of harm, it may be time to look into placement into a facility with a “locked memory care unit” which will prevent unauthorized entrance or exit. Many personal care homes, assisted livings, and nursing homes offer such environments targeted at the wandering population.
Dementia does not guarantee wandering! Remember that just because a loved one has a diagnosis of dementia does not mean that he or she will wander! If placement in a residential care setting is needed, rest assured that most individuals with dementia can be cared for successfully in small homes or larger facilities which do not “lock people in” or otherwise restrict their movement. Providence Senior Living (www.ProvidenceAL.com) offers smaller personal care homes in Alpharetta, Georgia, specializing in dementia care for non-wanderers. Care givers will attest to the fact that intermittent or occasional wandering may stop permanently once an individual has “settled in” to their new home. As long as extra safety measures are taken during the settling-in period, an unlocked facility may be sufficient in the long run. Do not place someone with an established pattern of wandering in an unsecured home or facility!
How do I know if my loved one needs a locked unit? Family members who care for their loved ones in a daily basis, not physicians or other healthcare providers, are in the best position to determine if a senior needs a locked setting for safety. Knowing the individual’s past life habits, activity levels, and present daily habits is critical to understanding and predicting what safety measures should be taken.