It is every caregiver’s nightmare. A family member with dementia disappears from the house, grocery store, or park and can’t be found. The police are called. Search parties are dispatched. In most cases, the loved one is found, but not every story has a happy ending. Wandering is a common occurrence among those with Alzheimer’s and dementia. What can you as a caregiver do to prevent your loved one from getting lost or to help ensure their safe return if they do?
What Causes Wandering?
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, as many as six in 10 people with dementia will wander. No one with dementia wants to get lost on purpose. Instead, it is easy for someone with dementia to become disoriented and lose their way, even when walking or driving to familiar places. Wandering can also happen in crowded places, where your loved one may feel agitated or frightened and try to get away.
In other instances, a person with dementia will decide it’s time to “go to work,” or will realize they need to “pick the kids up at school,” even though the kids are all grown and they’ve been retired for years.
How to Prevent Wandering
There are ways that you can prepare for the possibility of wandering and even prevent wandering in the first place.
Watch Your Loved One’s Behavior
Certain types of behavior can foreshadow an attempt to wander. These can include:
- General agitation
- A desire to fulfill a former obligation, like going to work
- Wanting to “go home” even while at home
- General confusion about where they are
- Wanting to go see former friends or deceased family members
If you notice these behaviors, keep a close eye on your loved one and make sure to accompany them when they leave the house.
Check In Regularly
You may be surprised to discover that wandering can happen even in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and dementia. If your loved one is still able to live independently, he or she could still become disoriented, especially when trying to go to a new place. It is a good idea to check in with your loved one regularly throughout the day.
Establish a Routine
One important way to prevent the confusion and disorientation that often precipitates wandering is to establish a regular routine for your loved one. That means getting up at the same time each day, having meals at regular times, and adding in regular activity times. A routine adds comfort and familiarity to the day.
Stay Away from Busy Places
It is easy for someone with dementia to become over-excited and confused in busy, crowded, and noisy places. It is also much more difficult for you to keep track of your loved one in a crowded place. The best option is to avoid these places altogether. Don’t bring your loved one to a big outdoor event or busy mall if you can avoid it.
Set Up Cameras in the Home
If your loved one lives independently, or if they live with you but you are out of the house for long periods of time, consider setting up a few cameras that allow you to regularly check in on your loved one. This is a good idea not only to prevent wandering but also to ensure that you notice right away if your loved one falls or leaves the stove on.
Hide Your Keys
Don’t make wandering easy. Keep your keys in your bedroom and out of sight!
If your loved one has a penchant for wandering, you may need to take more extreme measures, which may include locking doors and windows. One option is to add sliding bolts at the top or bottom of a door.
Do Not Leave Your Loved One Alone
The best way to prevent wandering is to always ensure that your loved one is monitored. That means always keeping an eye on them in the home and going with them whenever they travel out. Not every family has the capacity to watch a loved one every hour of every day, which is totally understandable.
Moved Your Loved One into a Memory Care Facility
If wandering has become a major problem or at least a big concern, you may want to consider whether now is the time to start looking at memory care facilities. These types of facilities are designed to prevent wandering while also giving your loved one a degree of freedom and autonomy.
How to Manage Your Loved One When Wandering Occurs
The right preparation can prevent most wandering episodes, but no plan is foolproof. While you certainly hope that your loved one will never become lost, it is smart to at lease prepare for the possibility and to put measures in place that will help ensure a quick and safe return.
Fully Charged Cell Phone
Make sure your loved one always carries a cell phone. Charge the cell phone each night so that the battery can last throughout the day. Do not put a passcode on the phone and input your number and the numbers of family members for easy dialing. No matter how lost your loved one becomes, a charged cell phone can get them home.
If someone finds your loved one, make it easy for them to contact you. We recommend ordering a special bracelet that lists your loved one’s condition and your number. Consider including a card in their wallet, purse, or pocket that lists their medications and doctor’s number in the case of an emergency.
Several devices and apps allow you to easily track and find your loved one if they should get lost. Some of these are standalone devices, like the Securus eZoom and PocketFinder. Other options include phone plans that let you track other members of the plan or apps like Life360 or GPS Location Tracker. Most of these devices and apps allow you to create a “safe zone” and will trigger an alarm if your loved one travels outside of that area.
The thought of your loved one getting lost is scary, but there are steps you can take to make that possibility less likely and to get your loved one back safe and sound if it does happen. If you need help or advice on how to deal with wandering episodes or other caregiver challenges, please join us for our next caregiver’s support group, which is free and open to the public.
Categories: Memory Care