Planning Ahead for Your Loved One's Wandering

Jacqueline Marcell Health Guide
  • I can’t even imagine the terror of frantically running through the neighborhood searching and searching trying to find an elderly parent who has wandered off. I was a certifiable basket case one time just when my parents were over two hours late coming home from their Adult Day Care–when their new shuttle driver got lost and took everyone else home first. I thought for sure there had been an accident and they were lying in the gutter hurt or gone. I remember being soooo relieved when the van finally came around the corner and they arrived safely.

    I receive Alzheimer’s news alerts from around the world daily and often read about sorrowful regretful families whose loved one wandered off, were eventually found, but unfortunately were already gone. Since 60 percent of Alzheimer's Disease patients will wander (in the middle to late stage of the disease), families need to plan ahead for the probable behavior–instead of waiting until it starts and risking tragedy.
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    As Alzheimer's Disease progresses and judgment becomes more impaired, the patient may not recognize familiar surroundings nor be aware of where they live. Imagine their terror when they get lost and don’t know their own phone number and can’t call home. Compounding the situation is that they don’t look like they are wandering aimlessly, instead, they look like they are on a mission to get someplace–so bystanders typically don’t realize what’s happening.

    I get so upset when someone tells me they leave their father with dementia home alone saying he’s just fine by himself. I often hear, "Oh no, my father doesn’t wander at all–he knows not to go out." I always say, "Please don’t assume he won’t just up and start one day-eager to get to his childhood home 800 miles away, which he thinks is just down the street. Please be prepared, because the first time he wanders may be tragic."

    My mother was in a wheelchair and couldn’t walk without help, so I was more worried about falls than wandering–but my father was very mobile and would go outside frequently to water, check the cars, check the house, and see the neighbors. Since my parents weren’t properly diagnosed for their early Alzheimer's for over a year, and I was so new to the whole caregiving experience, first I put a bell on the door so I could hear if he opened it and went out. Then as he got worse, I put dead bolts on the doors and hid keys nearby in case of an emergency. I felt bad about only letting him go outside with help, but something nagged at me that he might get out and get lost. I decided to get a metal bracelet with a Pet Tag engraved with his name and phone number on it–and I made it so he couldn’t get it off without pliers. Fortunately, he was okay about wearing it.

    Unfortunately, no one told me that the Alzheimer’s Association had already tackled this problem and have develped a wonderful program called "Safe Return" to help with the wandering behavior.

    Also, another great system, Project Lifesaver, uses a transmitter to find wandering patients.

  • Bottom line: PLEASE don’t think it can’t happen to your loved one. Plan for the worst case scenario and hopefully your emergency wandering plan will never have to go into action.
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    Have you dealt with your loved one's wandering? Tell us about it in the message boards.

    You can learn more about Jacqueline and find information about her book at
Published On: June 08, 2006