During a time when my father-in-law was ill, I sat with him while my mother-in-law went to the grocery store. This store was only a few blocks away from their home and she’d made the trip routinely for years. Only this time, she was gone so long we were worried. Once she finally returned she admitted to getting lost and having had trouble finding her way home. What happened to her is what Alzheimer’s disease experts call wandering.
Wandering can occur during nearly any stage of Alzheimer’s, though people in the later stages of the disease are often the most at risk for a tragic outcome.
Wandering behavior can happen with little or no warning, as it did with my mother-in-law, but sometimes there are clues if caregivers watch closely for them. As with many things in life, education can help us mitigate risk and possible tragedy.
The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America has published the results of a study titled “Lost and Found: A Review of Available Methods and Technologies to Aid Law Enforcement in Locating Missing Adults with Dementia.” This report contains tips on watching for wandering behavior, preventing wandering, and suggests technology to help law enforcement quickly search for the missing person. The National Alzheimer’s Association offers its download of “Wandering: Who is at Risk?” as a guide for caregivers who want to prevent wandering and quickly find those who do. Both documents are very enlightening.
Tips to prevent the need to wander
People wander for a reason, so trying to stay ahead of your loved one’s needs can frequently prevent this dangerous behavior. According to the reports, one risk factor is boredom. If the person with dementia is interested in some activity, he or she is less apt to look for something else to do and take off looking for excitement. Also suggested is helping people with AD exercise enough to become tired and hopefully more relaxed. Watching for the need to find a bathroom is another tip. Also, making sure other basic needs such as thirst and hunger are satisfied can help prevent the urge to wander off in search of a solution to a problem they may not fully understand.
Tips to keep people safe at home
Some of the best tips I’ve encountered to foil the attempts of a person with dementia are locking doors with a key lock placed high on the door where the person is not apt to look, camouflaging doors with paint or wallpaper to help them blend in with the walls, or even placing large STOP signs on exits. The visual cue of the stop sign may be so ingrained in memory that the person would automatically not go beyond that point.
Keep car and house keys hidden. It’s easy to forget that the person with dementia is not less “smart” than he or she was before developing the disease. A car key spotted on the kitchen table may temp a person who shouldn’t drive to go out and take a spin. Door alarms and even floor mats with an audible alarm to let the caregiver know someone has walked down a particular hallway are available online.
Keep the home safe
A person with dementia may not remember if he or she has taken medications and take them a second time or neglect them entirely. Even aspirin and other OTC medications should be locked up. Kitchen knives and other potential dangerous items should also be locked up or at least kept in a difficult to open drawer or cupboard.
As we age, we tend to need more light to navigate so night lights and other lights to guide the person to the bathroom or other places where he or she may go after dark should be used. Also, many people with dementia have gait problems, including foot dragging, so electrical cords, scatter rugs and other potential hazards should be secured or removed.
Know your loved one’s history
If wandering should happen, you want to be able to think on your feet. The more you know about the person with dementia, the more likely it is that you’d be able to guess where they may have gone. Also, keep a photo and emergency contact information readily available.
Enroll your loved one in a data base such as the National Alzheimer’s Association’s Medic Alert and/or Safe Return or Project Lifesaver. Both charge for the services, but the tracking ability can save lives.
See if your state is involved in the National Silver Alert program. This is the senior version of the Amber Alert for missing children. Silver Alert isn’t as widely recognized as the Amber Alert, but it’s growing.
As with any potential emergency, prevention is better than the need to react. However, even the best laid plans can fail. It only takes an instant for someone to slip through an open door while a caregiver retrieves the mail or newspaper. If you learn preventive techniques and become familiar with technology and alert systems to use in an emergency, you are likely doing all you can to prevent a tragedy, which should give you some peace of mind.
Schweigert, M. (2013, Janurary 14) Watching out for people with dementia. Lancaster Online. Retrieved from http://lancasteronline.com/article/local/802287_Watching-out-for-people-with-dementia.html
Alzheimer’s Foundation of America (AFA). Lost and Found: A Review of Available Methods and Technologies to Aid Law Enforcement in Locating Missing Adults with Dementia. Retrieved from http://www.alzfdn.org/documents/Lost&Found_forweb.pdf
National Alzheimer’s Association. Wandering: Who is at Risk? Retrieved from http://www.alz.org/national/documents/card_wanderingwhoisatrisk.pdf