Wandering is an activity that is usually caused by a lot of different symptom’s that an Alzheimer’s patient is going through at any given moment. Boredom, restlessness, hunger, thirst, disorientation, confusion, stress, agitation, anxiety, side affect from medication, can all add to the problem of wandering.
There are a lot of reasons why a person with Alzheimer’s may wander off, some of which make no sense to us, but to an Alzheimer’s patient makes perfect sense to them.
Sometimes the patient will want to “go to work”, even though they have been retired for 10 plus years or so. Or they may want to “go home” even though they are at home. These types of ideas are instilled into the patient’s brain because that is where they are at the moment, somewhere in the past, for you and me these ideas do not make sense but to the patient they make perfect sense. It’s hard to combat these ideas and try to make the Alzheimer’s patient come back to reality. So in most cases it’s futile to even try.
While wandering off, the Alzheimer’s patient sets out with a certain goal in mind, however that goal is usually lost at some point. It’s not unusual for a patient to forget what that goal was or why they set out to do it in the first place. By the time they get to a certain point they get very scared and afraid because they don’t know where they are or how to get back home, they are lost. And that is a very scary thought for any of us who do not have Alzheimer’s let alone those who do.
There are literally thousands of horror stories out there about wandering Alzheimer’s patients that have ended up with some pretty catastrophic results. The very thought of not being able to find your loved one because they have wandered off is frightening to say the least.
How to Cope With Wandering
Many people with Alzheimer’s wander away from their home or caregiver. As the caregiver, you need to know how to limit wandering and prevent the person from becoming lost. This will help keep the person safe and give you greater peace of mind.
Try to follow these tips before the person with AD wanders:
- Make sure the person carries some kind of ID or wears a medical bracelet. If the person gets lost and can’t communicate clearly, an ID will let others know about his or her illness. It also shows where the person lives.
- Let neighbors and the local police know that the person with AD tends to wander.
- Keep a recent photograph or video recording of the person to help police if the person becomes lost.
- Keep doors locked. Consider a keyed deadbolt, or add another lock placed up high or down low on the door. If the person can open a lock, you may need to get a new latch or lock.
- Install an “announcing system” that chimes when the door opens.
- Consider aGPSLocating device to find the wandering patient
Look for the trigger
- If the behavior is new, determine if there have been any big changes in her life. A recent move or change of caregiver can be stressful, for example, and frustration and anxiety can cause wandering. Take extra measures to calm her in stressful times, such as going on fewer outings and following a steady routine. A new medication could be causing agitation as a side effect; mention the wandering to the prescribing doctor.
- Look for a pattern in wandering episodes. If it always happens at night, for example, it could indicate fear or loneliness and she may need extra support after dark. If it’s at mealtimes, she may be hungry or thirsty and unable to follow through on these desires. Some people wander at specific times linked to activities from their previous work life or other former routines.
- Assess whether your patient is busy enough. Sheer boredom is a common cause of wandering. Your patient should ideally have access to a variety of activities (sorting laundry or blocks, making art or crafts, watching calm nature-type videos, and talking). It’s also good to provide some time out of doors with a companion and some interaction with other people.
Reduce temptations and stressors
- Keep keys out of sight. A friend or relative who has Alzheimer’s that’s severe enough to include wandering shouldn’t be driving. But she may still recognize keys left hanging in a familiar place and drive off — even if you don’t think she has memories of driving or still knows how.
- Avoid crowds. Crowded situations can produce stress that leads to wandering once she’s back at home. And from a practical standpoint, it’s hard to keep track of someone who wanders when you’re in a shopping mall, fair, or other large public gathering
- Don’t let a wanderer go out alone. Even if the person you’re caring for is a longtime walker, she shouldn’t venture out on her own. She could become confused and lose her way home or meander away from her usual turf.
- Don’t leave her in the car. If you leave someone prone to wandering alone in the car while you’re running a quick errand in the bank or drugstore, she’s liable to become frightened or worried and slip out of the vehicle.
- Make the house safer for walking. If you haven’t done so already, remove throw rugs, arrange furniture so the person has clear pathways to move through, and eliminate clutter and low-to-the-ground hazards such as magazine racks or plants.
- Install nightlights. Illuminate preferred safe paths, especially in hallways and rooms that are used most.
- Consider childproof locks for dangerous doors. Doors leading to stairways or the outdoors are the most problematic, which can be hard for an older person to open. Block sliding glass doors.
- Try new locks. Any kind of door lock that’s different from what the person always used, especially if it’s a bit challenging, such as a high chain lock or a key lock for a door that once had a button lock, might work because it’s difficult for her to learn new things.
- Try a “Do Not Enter” sign on an exit door. Some people are deterred by this simple measure.
Try safety tools
- Look into alarms that signal movement. Bed pads or chair pads with wireless remote alarms. with current technology these censoring systems are becoming more and more inexpensive, and they offer an immediate alert that a wanderer is getting up. Other devices include floor mats with remote alarms, motion detectors that go off, and conventional door chimes that sound when a door is opened.
- Disguise dangerous doorways. A gentler alternative to door locks is to lead the person away from certain doors with visual cues that convey that the door is something else. Camouflage possibilities include painting the door to match a surrounding wall or hanging posters, mirrors, or murals on the door that are especially designed to make it look like a bookshelf or pantry shelf.
Enlist the help of others
- Tell immediate neighbors about the person’s Alzheimer’s. Ask them to call you if, say, she uncharacteristically comes over to visit or is seen walking alone.
- Use daycare and professional help. If someone with Alzheimer’s begins leaving home when she wanders, she should no longer be left alone even for short periods. Take advantage of adult daycare programs or a relief caregiver when you must go out, if you’re the primary caregiver.
- Keep track of clothes. If your friend or relative is a chronic wanderer, some caregivers recommend making sure she’s always dressed in bright colors. That way, if she does slip away she can be more easily identified and found. The caregiver should keep track of what she’s wearing each day.
- Keep a recent photo handy. It’s common to avoid photographing an older person who appears greatly changed because of the disease. But an up-to-date shot will help searchers identify your patient if they should become lost.
Of all the reasons and solutions we have discussed for a wandering Alzheimer’s patients, none is more important than you as a Caregiver being constantly aware of the pitfalls, and habits of your patient.
Only you can know for sure what your patient is capable of, what their needs are, and using your imagination on how to combat the problem of wandering.
Being a good Caregiver means being aware of almost everything your patient is doing at any given time. The good news is, that there are finally products and services on the market today that will help give you the Caregiver “piece of mind” to help stem this problem of wandering. Take advantage of them, and wandering might just be one less problem you have to worry about.