Alzheimer’s: the serious nature of wandering behavior

  • It’s been several years, now, but I’ve never forgotten the story. A then 58-year-old Minnesota woman had been diagnosed with early on-set Alzheimer’s. She was, in most aspects, still doing well. But one day she got in her car and drove west on the Interstate. No one will ever know why. She got stuck off a road in Wyoming, left her car and set out on foot. She didn’t get far. Searchers found her body not far from her vehicle.


    Since then, I’ve read many stories about people with Alzheimer’s wandering from home. Most are elderly, because age is a risk factor for AD. Some are found reasonably soon. Others are found too late.

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    Recently, CNN ran a story with a happier ending, but the story stresses the risk of someone with AD driving or walking off for reasons no one can fathom. The story gives some valuable tips for caregivers of people with dementia.


    Wandering can happen without warning

    Since families are often taken by surprise when someone has wandered off for the first time, the CNN story tops its list of tips with the need to stay aware. There is always a risk that your loved one may decide to go somewhere sensible, only to end up far away from the intended destination.


    Knowing your elder’s habits helps, however it’s no guarantee that you will be able to read their minds. For example, often people think when their loved one with AD says, “I want to go home,” the person means the home they live in now, or the home they lived in before they moved to a facility. More frequently, especially in later stages of AD, the person is thinking of a childhood home.


    Someone with this urge could start walking down the sidewalk in what seems to be a normal manner, only later to be found blocks or miles away.


    Families are left frantically searching large areas surrounding their loved ones current residence. Many of these searches turn out well, but some don’t. New technology is increasing the odds, however, of a happy reunion. Shoes with GPS tracking are gaining in popularity. Bracelets and other jewelry also offer tracking.

    By contacting the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, the National Alzheimer’s Association, or the Alzheimer’s organization in your community, you can find reputable services such as GPS tracking, as well as personal ID information jewelry people can wear. Most of these devices have a monthly fee attached, but they do give families a better chance of finding the wanderer quickly and bringing him or her home safely.


    Preventing wandering

    When the person with AD announces an intention to leave home to “get the children,” or “go to work,” distraction can often be helpful. If you say, “Sure, let’s get you ready,” and then you stall for time, you may be able to distract them from their goal. A sip of a drink and some conversation may be enough to divert them. You can then re-direct the person to another activity.


    Disguising exits with fabric or photos can help prevent wandering. While the CNN article suggests mirrors as a way to disguise doors, many people with later stage AD find mirrors frightening because even their own image seems like a stranger to them. Since they can feel threatened by the “stranger” in the mirror, in my view, that idea could backfire.


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    Placing a keyed lock in an unusual place on the door can be effective. Dark rugs placed on the floor directly in front of exits, which can be perceived as a hole, thus diverting the person looking for an exit. Curtains over a door can have the same result.


    Keeping people active

    Keeping people active, physically and mentally, can minimize restlessness. That’s one reason adult day care is so popular. In good day care centers, people cook, fold clothes, take walks and do other activities that help them feel useful and keep them occupied.  

    Adult day care facilities often provide safe wandering areas. You can do this at home, but take care that the person with AD doesn’t outsmart the caregiver. Having AD doesn’t affect intelligence. Many a caregiver has been tricked by the care receiver’s clever detection of an exit. Check with your local Alzheimer’s organization for more ideas that can prevent wandering.


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Published On: December 14, 2011