Spring in Your Step, Risks for Wandering

The arrival of spring in New England is cause for celebration with people ready and anxious to be outside, to soak up the much anticipated sunshine and warmth of the new season. wandering seniors

People with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias also sense the change in season and share this “spring fever” with an eagerness to be outdoors. After a long winter, a springtime walk and more time outdoors can be a welcome change in routine for people with cognitive impairment as well as their caregivers. Getting out and about, however, has its share of risks for someone with dementia because of the potential for wandering.

wandering

Wandering is a behavior associated with Alzheimer’s and other memory loss conditions in which individuals become lost after leaving the safety of their home. An individual will set out with a purpose or destination in mind, and in the process, he or she may become confused and eventually lost, even in a familiar setting or neighborhood.

Everyone with Alzheimer’s, at any stage of the disease, is at risk for wandering, a potentially life-threatening behavior. Becoming disoriented and lost causes great stress for an individual with Alzheimer’s. Often they are unable to ask for assistance and, because their cognitive abilities have declined, they have poor judgment and lack the analytical skills that would help a healthy person navigate through an unfamiliar or dangerous situation.

For those providing care to someone in the early stages of the disease, balancing their loved one’s need for a degree of personal freedom with the necessity of protecting him or her from the dangers of wandering can be difficult. Because an estimated 60% of those with dementia will wander at some point, it is critical for caregivers to monitor their loved ones closely as their disease progresses and be alert for any signs of wandering.

Warning Signs for Wandering Seniors, According to the Alzheimer’s Association:

  • Returns from a regular walk later than expected
  • Tries to fulfill former roles, such as picking children up at school each afternoon
  • Seeks home and states “I want to go home”, even when at home
  • Paces frequently or has other restless behavior
  • Has difficulty locating rooms at home, such as the bathroom
  • Looks for caregiver or another familiar person often
  • Appears lost in a new or different environment

Alzheimer’s Association – Tips For Caregivers:

  • Incorporate exercise into daily routine to combat anxiety and restlessness
  • Take a daily walk together or find a friend who likes to walk who can help out
  • Target specific activities for times when wandering is most likely to occur. For many, this will be later in the day when people with Alzheimer’s experience higher levels of agitation, referred to as “sundowning”.
  • Ensure basic needs are met: hunger, thirst, bathroom, and general comfort
  • Keep the individual engaged to avoid wandering, involve the person in daily activities, such as household tasks, hobbies or social programs
  • Secure and camouflage home exits: paint or hang a cloth over a door to match the color of surrounding walls
  • Provide reassurance for feelings of loss, abandonment or disorientation
  • Tell your neighbors and local emergency responders about the potential for wandering so they can step in and help if they see your loved one walking alone
  • Consider having your loved one wear a GPS or other tracking device to help you find them quickly if they wander

Resources and helpful links:

Enroll your loved one in MedicAlert + Safe Return though the Alzheimer’s Association, a 24-hour nationwide emergency response service

If your loved one is lost, you can also activate a local “Silver Alert” by calling 911 and speaking with your local or state police. Many media outlets participate in the Silver Alert notification system by broadcasting information to seek the general public’s assistance in locating a missing senior.

Family Guide to Alzheimer’s & Dementia
Alzheimer’s Association: Wandering Risks & Tips
National Institute on Aging: Wandering & Alzheimer’s Disease