Alzheimer’s: Wandering Is a Top Concern for Family Caregivers

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When a person with Alzheimer’s wanders away, they may be unable to ask for help or even tell who they are. It can be some time before the person is found, causing all manner of anguish for their family.

Fortunately, there is more awareness around this issue today. With almost six million Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease today, it’s a growing problem. We might receive a “Silver Alert” on our phone or TV urging us to be on the lookout for the missing elder. Police departments respond more quickly if they know a missing person has dementia. And new technologies help families keep tabs on their loved one.

Here is a three-part strategy to help families keep their loved one with Alzheimer’s safe

  1. Understand why your loved one wanders.

When a person has Alzheimer’s disease, memory loss, confusion and disorientation make it increasingly difficult to recognize familiar faces and places, even one’s spouse, child, or a lifetime home. Other factors that contribute to wandering include restlessness, agitation and stress; boredom and lack of a sense of purpose; sleep disorders; physical pain; and sometimes the side effects of medications.

Geriatricians point out that the term “wandering” is something of a misnomer, because many times, in the person’s mind, the activity is not purposeless. They might be looking for the bathroom but be unable to find it. They might believe it’s time to leave for work, even though they retired years before. A great-grandmother might be searching for her own children, in the belief that they are still small and in need of her care. Wandering might be an expression of a desire to do something … just as the person has always done. In all likelihood, the person isn’t trying to “get away.” Instead, they are trying to get somewhere, though the place might be far away in location and time.

  1. Take steps to reduce the risk.

Observe your loved one’s patterns. The first step is to understand as best you can the reason why the person with dementia is wandering. What are their “triggers”? Where do they usually try to go? During what time of day are they most restless? Do they seem to be looking for something, someone, or someplace?

Modify activities. Boredom and a sense of isolation often underlie wandering. Your loved one may enjoy appropriate art activities, crafts, household tasks, music, cooking simple foods and outings. Many communities now offer Alzheimer’s cafes, arts programs, and other modified activities for people with dementia. If your loved one is anxious in noisy places or where there are crowds, avoid shopping malls or other locations with lots of people, or go during off hours.

Keep doors locked. You can install special locks on doors, safety gates to prevent exit, and an alarm that will sound if the front door is open. The National Institute on Aging recommends using loosely fitted doorknob covers so that the cover turns instead of the actual knob. (To preserve an emergency exit, use these only when someone else is present in the home.) Check out other home safety modification recommendations from the National Institute on Aging or the Alzheimer’s Association. These include devices to keep windows from opening all the way, adding visual cues to disguise the door, and a “stop” or “do not enter” sign on the door.

Be sure your loved one always carries ID, and a medical alert to tell others he has memory loss. If your loved one doesn’t consistently carry a wallet, try a bracelet, pendant, or clothing labels. Some families also take advantage of GPS or other tracking technology to help locate loved ones quickly.

Notify neighbors and local merchants about your loved one’s condition. Show them a photo of your loved one. Ask them to contact you if they see your loved one out alone. Having this conversation with you makes it more likely that others will recognize the problem and feel comfortable getting involved. They will probably be glad to help, and relieved to be able to do so!

Take care of yourself. Several studies have shown that when family caregivers feel stressed, depressed and overburdened, their loved one picks up on their emotional state and is more likely to wander. Ask for help from friends and family and check out support resources in your area. Professional home care services not only keep clients safe, but also promote the well-being of the whole family. Families report that they have a more peaceful relationship with their loved one when a professional home caregiver takes over some personal care tasks.

  1. Have a plan in place, just in case.

Even if you’ve taken all the precautions mentioned above, it’s prudent to anticipate that your loved one may nonetheless manage to wander away. Be prepared, and have a strategy at the ready:

The Alzheimer’s Association recommends that you search for your loved one in the immediate area for no longer than 15 minutes. If you haven’t found your loved one, call 9-1-1 and report that a vulnerable person with Alzheimer’s disease is missing.

Find out if your state has a “Silver Alert” or equivalent program, similar to the “Amber Alert” for missing children. As law enforcement agencies recognize the needs of growing numbers of adults with dementia, more states are implementing this type of broadcast notification system.

Have a recent, close-up photo of your loved one available. You may be able to leave it on file ahead of need, along with your contact information, at the local police department. The National Institute on Aging also suggests that you keep an article of your loved one’s clothing in a plastic bag, worn and unwashed, in the event that the police department uses dogs for tracking.

Share your plan with your home care agency and anyone else who may be staying with your loved one while you aren’t there.

People with dementia are usually most comfortable in their own home rather than in a nursing home or other facility, but a person who wanders should not be left unattended. If your loved one requires more supervision than you and other family members can provide, it may be time to bring in home care services. Assisting Hands of Columbus trains its caregivers on the special needs of people with dementia. Our trained caregivers provide supervision and care with a mind toward preserving the dignity and sense of well-being of clients with dementia.


Source: Assisting Hands Home Care in association with IlluminAge. Copyright © IlluminAge.