Wandering by People with Alzheimer's Can be Fatal in Winter

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Baby, it’s cold outside! And those cold temperatures can put people with Alzheimer’s disease in extreme danger if they wander outside unattended.

    Fox News has reported that a woman with Alzheimer’s disease froze to death after wandering away from her home in rural western New York. She walked out of her home without her husband’s knowledge. That evening, her husband found his wife’s body in the backyard of their home. The woman wasn’t wearing proper clothing for being out in temperatures that were in the single digits and a wind chill below zero.

    It’s important to realize that dementia may cause people to lose the ability to judge temperatures. In some cases, they may pile on the heavy clothes, even if they are sitting in a warm room. Conversely, they may not realize that they are in dangerously cold temperatures when they step outside. And as that story out of New York points out, going outside for only a short time during winter’s cold temperatures can quickly lead to death.

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    The Alzheimer’s Association recommends taking several steps to prevent wandering. These steps include:

    • Maintaining a routine. A structured day can help occupy a person with Alzheimer’s, making it less likely they were find the time to wander. The Alzheimer’s Association recommends creating a daily plan that includes activities that provide meaning and enjoyment.  This plan can include mealtimes, personal care, creative activities, household chores, intellectual activities, physical activity, social activity and spiritual activity.
    • Identifying times that the loved one is most likely to wander. These are times in which to plan activities, which can help the person focus and, thus, reduce their anxiety and restlessness. One of the key times when people with Alzheimer’s wander is in the evening (known as sundowning), so be careful at this time by limiting environmental distractions (such as television), avoiding stimulants (alcohol, caffeine and sweets) and big dinners, keeping a well-lit home as well as a safe sleeping environment (including appropriate window locks, door sensors and motion detectors), and maintaining a regular sleep schedule for the loved one.
    • Be reassuring when the person feels disoriented or abandoned. Although your first instinct will be to correct the loved one when they say they want to “go home,” don’t do it. Instead, reframe the conversation to focus on validation of their reality. For instance, one day Mom was very agitated when I visited. She explained that she was in the middle of a busy airport concourse and needed to catch her flight (when she was actually around a nurse’s station at the nursing home). Assuring her that she wouldn’t miss her flight, I asked her to come and sit with me in a quieter area. I then proceeded to redirect her attention to a calmer topic and she soon relaxed.
    • Ensuring the loved one’s basic needs are met. This includes thirst, hunger, going to the bathroom or pain.
    • Avoiding busy places that can cause disorientation, which can cause the loved to wander. Places you take for granted – grocery stores, shopping centers or that nurse’s station – can be really confusing for a loved one with dementia. That can prompt them to wander away.
    • Putting locks in areas where the loved one can’t see them.  Placing locks in areas where a loved one won’t look can help keep them secure. The Alzheimer’s Association also recommends placing slide bolts at the top or bottom of doors.
    • Using camouflage to disguise doors and door knobs. This step can include painting the doors and the door knobs the same color as the walls, removable curtains, removable screens and using childproof door knobs.
    • Removing car keys from sight. Many people who have Alzheimer’s don’t realize how impaired they truly are and think they can drive. Therefore, it’s important to remove all possibilities for temptation from their sightline.
    • Installing monitoring devices to detect attempts to get outside. The Alzheimer’s Association points out that an electronic home alarm or a bell placed above a door can help ensure that your loved one stays safely inside the home.

    Taking these steps can help ensure that your loved one stays safely – and warmly – inside during the winter.

  • Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

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    Alzheimer’s Association. (ND). Sleep issues and sundowning.

    Alzheimer’s Association. (ND). Wander and getting lost.

    Fox News. (2014). New York woman freezes to death after wandering from home.

    Homewatch Caregivers. (ND). Guide to living with dementia.

Published On: January 07, 2014