Wandering and getting lost is common among people with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia and can happen during any stage of the disease, according to an Alzheimer's Association news release.
“Anyone who has memory problems and is able to walk is at risk for wandering,” Cindy Schelhorn, senior director of communications and marketing with the Alzheimer’s Association National Capital Area Chapter, said in the release. “Even in the early stages of dementia, the person can become disoriented or confused for a period of time and may not remember his or her name or address.”
Behaviors that may indicate an increased risk of wandering include: forgetting how to get to familiar places; talking about fulfilling former obligations, such as going to work; trying or wanting to "go home," even when at home; or having difficulty locating familiar places like the bathroom, bedroom or dining room.
Planning ahead and being prepared is critical for when this dangerous — and potentially fatal — situation occurs. When preparing an emergency plan, be sure to:
• Have a list of people and their telephone numbers easily accessible to call for help.
• Ask neighbors, friends and family to call if they see the person alone.
• Keep a recent, close-up photo and current medical information on hand to give to police.
• Know your neighborhood. Be aware of any dangerous areas nearby like bodies of water, dense foliage or busy roads.
• Keep a list of places where the person may wander, including past jobs, former homes, places of worship or a favorite restaurant.
“When a memory-impaired person goes missing, don’t wait. Begin looking immediately,” Schelhorn said in the release. “Ninety-four percent of people who wander are found within 1.5 miles of where they disappeared. If the person isn’t located within the first 15 minutes of the search, call ‘911’ and report to the police that a person with Alzheimer's disease or dementia — a ‘vulnerable adult’ — is missing. A Missing Report should be filed and the police will begin to search for the individual.”
Wandering situations can happen even to the most diligent of caregivers. The following are strategies to help lower the chances of a wandering incident:
• Identify the most likely times of day that wandering may occur. Plan activities at that time. Activities and exercise can reduce anxiety, agitation and restlessness.
• Reassure the person if he or she feels lost, abandoned or disoriented. If the person with dementia wants to leave to "go home" or "go to work," use communication focused on exploration and validation, and refrain from correcting the person.
• Ensure all basic needs are met. Has the person gone to the bathroom? Is he or she thirsty or hungry?
• Avoid busy places that are confusing and can cause disorientation.
• Place locks out of the line of sight. Install either high or low on exterior doors, and consider placing slide bolts at the top or bottom.
• Use devices that signal when a door or window is opened. This can be as simple as a bell placed above a door or as sophisticated as an electronic home alarm.
• Provide supervision. Do not leave someone with dementia unsupervised in new or changed surroundings. Never lock a person in at home or leave him or her in a car alone.
• If the person is no longer driving, remove access to car keys — a person with dementia may not just wander by foot. The person may forget that he or she can no longer drive. If the person is still able to drive, consider using a GPS device to help if they get lost.
The Alzheimer’s Association can provide families and caregivers with additional guidance on keeping people with memory issues safe. For more information, call the free 24/7 Helpline at 800-272-3900 or visit alz.org.