Strategies for Wandering

One of the most challenging aspects of caring for someone with dementia is their propensity to wander and become lost. Often the behavior is not aimless wandering, but rather the need to get somewhere or find something of importance.

What causes wandering?

There are as many triggers for wandering as there are people with dementia. Often the individual is bored or restless, and just needs exercise. Other times, the person may feel an urgent need to get to work or to take care of small children. Some individuals are searching for home or a familiar place. Others may want to escape a confusing or overwhelming environment. Whatever the cause, about 60% of those with dementia will wander away during the course of their disease. Once lost, the individual may be unable to ask for help. This leaves him vulnerable to exploitation and physical harm.

How can we protect the person with Dementia?

If your family member has wandered away in the past, it is likely to happen again. Keep a behavior log to determine if there is a particular time of day when wandering occurs.   Provide structured activity during that time, so the individual is active and engaged. Other suggestions for reducing the risk of becoming lost include:

  1. Secure your home with door alarms or simple bells that ring when the door is opened. Don’t forget to secure the windows, as well.
  1. Place small locks at the top of doorways that are out of sight, but can be reached easily by the caregiver.
  1. Develop a plan for daily exercise and activity so that wandering does not occur due to restlessness.
  1. Avoid arguing logic when your family member believes he needs to be somewhere important. Instead, join his journey and respond with a statement that is acceptable to him, i.e. “You do not need to go to work today, as it is a holiday.”
  1. Assure that your family member carries ID information. Purchase a Safe Return / Medic Alert bracelet through the Alzheimer’s Association.
  1. When out in public, use a temporary tattoo that provides contact information if your family member becomes lost
  1. Keep a current photo of your family member that can be provided to the police if he becomes lost.
  1. Maintain a regular sleep schedule to help reduce the risk of wandering at night.
  1. Alert your neighbors of the possibility of wandering. Encourage them to contact you if they spot your family member out walking alone.
  1. Hide doors with curtains or paint so they are not as visible.   Murals can even be painted over doors so that they blend into the room.
  1. Use child-proof covers on door knobs.
  1. Keep car keys out of sight, even if the individual has not driven a car for some time.
  1. Use night-lights in the dark so that the individual can find the bathroom and not wander in the wrong direction.
  1. If your family member goes missing, begin your search in the direction of his dominant hand, and typically head down-hill, rather than uphill.
  1. Avoid congested or confusing environments, such as malls or airports. You and your family member can easily become separated in these places.
  1. Take care of all basic needs, such as hunger, toileting, or cold. Individuals tend to wander and become lost when anxiety or discomfort is present.
  1. Use theater-style ropes to block doorways. Stop signs at eye level may also work.
  1. Place black mats in front of doorways to deter individuals from exiting. The mats often appear to be deep holes, and may prevent the individual from using the door.
  1. Lock windows so that they cannot be opened more than six inches.
  1. Create safe spaces both indoors and outdoors (if possible) for wandering. This provides a sense of freedom, and may limit the urgent need to exit.
  1. Use tracking devices, such as those through Project Lifesaver to locate your family member if he becomes lost.

Most importantly, determine the motivation for the wandering, and address that issue first. Understand past habits that may have involved walking or exercise, and make an effort to incorporate similar activity into the daily schedule. If your family member goes missing, call 911 as soon as possible so that the police can be involved in the search.