In this blog series, The Caregiver’s Toolkit for Alzheimer’s and Dementia, we offer in-depth resources for those caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s or dementia.
Wandering is a behavior that may appear even in the early stages of dementia. Your loved one may request to go home — even if they are already home — or may leave the house entirely and become lost.
There are many different factors that can contribute to wandering behavior, including stress, fear, or simply an urge to carry out familiar routines. Wandering can be dangerous, which is why it’s important to be aware of the risk factors and signs that wandering might occur.
Learn more about this common behavior associated with dementia and get strategies for how to keep your loved one safe.
Why and When Does Wandering Occur?
A combination of confusion and memory problems can lead to wandering in people with dementia — in fact, a majority of individuals with Alzheimer’s will wander at some point.
However, there are some signs to look for that indicate that your loved one may be at higher risk of wandering. These include:
- Difficulty finding familiar places outside or even inside the home
- Expressing the need to “go home” even when they are at home
- Exhibiting restlessness or excessive pacing
- Appearing lost, anxious, or nervous in new or crowded environments
Wandering may occur after a trigger event, or simply on an impulse. Here are a few reasons wandering may begin:
- Stress or fear. An environment that seems fine to you — like a crowded restaurant — may be overwhelming or frightening for someone with dementia.
- Searching. People with dementia may wander to look for an item, or for a friend or family member, even if that person has passed.
- Basic needs. The person may be trying to find a bathroom, get something to eat, or retrieve something they need — but their actions may not make logical sense.
- Following past routines. A person with dementia may want to return to their place of work or run a typical errand.
- Visual-spatial problems. Alzheimer’s affects the area of the brain that governs visual guidance and navigation, leading to confusion and disorientation, even in familiar places.
How Can I Prevent Wandering?
Wandering isn’t necessarily harmful if it occurs in a safe, supervised environment. For example, a person may wander throughout the home but be unable to leave. However, it’s important to prevent wandering to keep the person safe at all times and ward off attempts to do things like leave the house or go for a drive.
The Alzheimer’s Association offers the following suggestions to prevent or curb wandering behavior:
Follow a Daily Routine
A structured daily routine can help a person with Alzheimer’s feel safer and more comfortable, making them less likely to wander.
Identify When Wandering May Occur
Plan for activities to occupy the person at times when wandering typically occurs.
Reassure and Redirect
Help your loved one feel safe and reassured if they exhibit signs of stress or worry. Don’t try to correct or reason with them if they say something like, “I want to go to the office now.” Instead, validate their concern and then try to move on to something else.
Place Locks Out of the Line of Sight and Hide Keys
Consider door locks that are above or below eye level. A simple bolt can also prevent the door from opening, even if it is unlocked. Keep keys, including car keys, safely hidden.
Consider Home Safety Devices
A simple bell that rings if a door or window is opened will do. More sophisticated alarms and sensors are also available, too.
What Should I Do if I Cannot Find My Loved One When They Wander?
Having a plan in place regarding what to do if your loved one becomes lost is key to reducing the stress of such an event. Above all, try your best to remain calm if you are looking for a missing loved one. About 94 percent of people with dementia who wander are found within 1.5 miles from their last known location.
If your loved one has wandered away from home, search for no more than 15 minutes before calling 911. Be sure to explain that the person missing has Alzheimer’s or dementia and may not react as expected if found. Make sure you have a list of people to call on for help if you suspect your loved one has wandered away, and ask them to contact you immediately if they see your loved one.
Also, note the places in your neighborhood that should be checked first. This includes dangerous spots like dense vegetation, stairways, and bodies of water. You may also consider locations that the person may be heading for, such as places of worship, former homes, and former workplaces.
There are many services available to assist those who have a loved one prone to this behavior. For instance, the Alzheimer’s Association and MedicAlert® offer an emergency response membership plan which includes help locating a loved one who has wandered and forms of ID like bracelets or tags that can be worn by the person.
More Alzheimer’s Caregiver Resources: Complimentary Guide
If additional support and care is needed for your loved one with Alzheimer’s or dementia, it may be time to consider a memory care community. As you visit each community, it’s helpful to know what to look for and what questions to ask. Download our complimentary guide, The New Yorker’s Guide to Memory Care in Manhattan, to help you evaluate each community. Inside you’ll find:
- What’s typically included in a memory care program
- What questions you should ask when evaluating programs
- Examples of quality programs and offerings