Alzheimer’s and Wandering: We Keep Learning

  • I'll never forget Hazel. She was a resident in the nursing home where all of my family members who got to the stage where a nursing home was the only safe environment, lived. It was just blocks from my home, so I could visit daily. Hazel would wander incessantly. She would walk the halls, literally, day and night. I don't know when the woman slept. The staff and I would comment that she had to have the strongest legs on the planet. She certainly was getting her exercise. At first, it was harmless enough. She just walked and walked. She was safe. She didn't bother anyone. Hazel was in her own world. But as the years - yes years - went by, Hazel would start to complain of being tired. Well, of course she was tired!

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    It was so sad. She'd walk and walk and walk and then see a chair and sit and say, "I'm sooo tired." Then she'd get up and start walking again. The staff, friends - any of us - would sit by her or walk by her and say, "Of course you're tired, Hazel. Why not sit and rest awhile."  Hazel would say, "I can't." And up she'd be, walking once more, traveling the halls, hour after hour. 


    When I first heard of Alzheimer's and wandering, I thought of the dramatic stories one reads about an elder wandering outside in the cold and freezing to death. Or getting hit in traffic. Awful things that make people aware they must outsmart the elder with electronic systems and other devices to keep him or her from wandering outside. By the way, I don't say "outsmart" as a cast off word. Alzheimer's may muddle the thought process, but that doesn't mean the intelligence isn't still there, as anyone who has tried to disable a car, only to find themselves "outsmarted" by the person who has Alzheimer's, knows. 


    Only lately have I thought about the kind of walking that Hazel did as wandering. It's so common with Alzheimer's for the person to be agitated and need to walk to get to wherever they think they are going that I've kind of categorized that as something different than Hazel's ceaseless walking.


    There's an informative article on the ADVANCE for Long-Term Care Management site, written by  Steve Barlam, CMC, LCSW, titled  "Making Sense of Wandering Seniors." It's heartening to know that understanding of wandering has evolved since Hazel's time. While the nurses were very kind to Hazel, and everyone wanted to help, I believe there is more known, now. While finding a way to prevent Alzheimer's is vital, and finding a way to reverse it for those who have it is essential, there are those who have had it for a long time, and common sense tells us that medicine will only do so much for them. Learning more about why people with Alzheimer's do what they do, and how families and professionals can help alleviate their anxiety and other symptoms is crucial.


    Barlam puts the wanderers into to general groups. "The first group is composed of those who are physically active or ‘on the go.'" The second group is "seniors whose emotional states compel them to flee their environments."


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    Barlam goes on to suggest some ways to approach wandering seniors, so that they are not startled or made more anxious by our approach. He also makes note of some interesting ways to camouflage exits. It's good to know experts are looking at all of the reasons for wandering, as well as how to best care for those that are in the wandering stage of the disease. Because, until there is a cure for Alzheimer's, wandering will be part of it what they deal with.


    Hazel, may you truly rest in peace. 


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Published On: June 06, 2008