Act Before a Crisis to Prevent Those with Alzheimer's Disease from Wandering

Eric J. Hall Health Guide
  • I cringe this time of year when the first major winter storm hits the New York area, like it did last week. I think about the homeless children without warm coats - and about individuals with Alzheimer's disease who become lost.


    The risk of becoming lost and the dangers it poses to someone with dementia exist year-round, of course. But during certain weather conditions, this behavior can be even more hazardous: hypothermia during extreme cold weather and dehydration during extreme heat.


    It's estimated that 60 percent of people with Alzheimer's disease will wander at some point during the progression of their illness. When wandering occurs, the worry and stress for caregivers is unimaginable. Unfortunately, chances of severe injury or death are enormous if the person is not found within 24 hours.

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    A day doesn't go by that there isn't a "Google alert" about someone who is lost or photos flashing on local TV stations with the headline "MISSING" somewhere in the country. The follow-up stories then start filtering in, stories about those who have been found safely or, sadly, those who have met tragic ends.


    Media in San Luis Obispo, CA recently highlighted an 83-year-old man with Alzheimer's disease who rode his bicycle 20 miles from home. He was one of the lucky ones; wearing a tracking bracelet as part of the Project Lifesaver International program, he was found-safely.


    Obviously, these are the happy endings all caregivers-and law enforcement officials-hope for. Being prepared can help in this regard. Act before a crisis.


    When caring for a loved one with Alzheimer's disease, we all need to understand behaviors, including wandering, that could arise during the progression of the disorder. And we need to monitor someone's wandering patterns to see if there are specific trends. For example, perhaps this behavior occurs at a certain time of day. Is Mom wandering in the morning because she is hungry? Is Grandpa wandering at night because he needs to use the bathroom?


    Taking steps to ensure someone's safety is key. Check your home environment, especially exit doors and locks, so it is more difficult for someone to leave home unattended. Put away essential items, such as the person's coat, shoes or pocketbook, since some individuals will not leave without certain articles.


    Periodic assessments of your home setting are a good idea. Since behaviors can turn on a dime with Alzheimer's disease, what works one day may not work the next.


    In addition, protecting loved ones with passive systems, such as numerous forms of identification, and active systems, such as tracking devices, are vital.


    Most of all, time is of the essence when someone wanders. Usually, someone is located within one mile of home. So it's important to alert neighbors about your loved one's condition so they can be on the look-out should wandering occur. Having law enforcement on board, either through rapid response programs like Project Lifesaver or having your loved one's photo on file at the precinct, can speed search efforts.


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    Should wandering occur, these precautions will hopefully result in happy endings.

Published On: December 17, 2007