SYRACUSE — Individuals living with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias are prone to wandering, which often puts them at risk for harm. It is one of the most unsettling behavioral changes common for someone living with Alzheimer’s disease, yet it often surprises family caregivers and can end with tragic results.
“More than six in 10 people living with dementia will wander eventually,” said Katrina VanFleet, LMSW, chief program officer for the Alzheimer’s Association, Central New York Chapter. “As the weather gets warmer, we’re more apt to open doors for fresh air or be outside, which provides a greater opportunity for someone to wander away from safety.”
Wandering can happen in the early, middle or late stages of the disease as people experience losses in judgement and orientation. It can also happen if they are still driving or have access to car keys. They may drive away and not know how to get back. The Alzheimer’s Association suggests these steps to help prevent wandering:
• Have a routine for daily activities.
• Identify the most likely times of day that wandering may occur. Plan activities at that time. Activities and exercise can reduce anxiety, agitation and restlessness.
• Reassure the person if he or she feels lost, abandoned or disoriented. If the person with dementia wants to leave to “go home” or “go to work,” use communication focused on exploration and validation. Refrain from correcting the person. For example, “We are staying here tonight. We are safe and I’ll be with you. We can go home in the morning after a good night’s rest.”
• Ensure all basic needs are met. Has the person gone to the bathroom? Is he or she thirsty or hungry?
• Avoid busy places that are confusing and can cause disorientation.
• Place locks out of the line of sight. Install them either high or low on exterior doors and consider placing slide bolts at the top or bottom.
• Use devices that signal when a door or window is opened. This can be as simple as a bell placed above a door or as sophisticated as an electronic home alarm.
• Provide supervision. Do not leave someone living with dementia unsupervised in new or changed surroundings.
If the person is no longer driving, remove access to car keys — a person living with dementia may not just wander by foot. The person may forget that he or she can no longer drive. If the person is still able to drive, consider using a GPS device to help if they get lost.
The Central New York Chapter also offers free membership in the MedicAlert Foundation’s response program that includes wandering support for residents in its 14-county region. This nationwide service provides an extra level of support to families and first responders in the event the person living with dementia becomes confused or wanders from safety.
“It’s rare that you can find peace of mind for free, but thanks to a grant from the New York State Department of Health, we’re able to offer a level of comfort to families concerned about their loved one wandering,” VanFleet said.
Individuals living with dementia and their caregiver living in Central New York are eligible for free enrollment by calling 315-472-4201 and dialing ext. 227, or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. The Alzheimer’s Association offers a safety center with tips and tactics to improve home safety and create a more secure environment for individuals living with dementia at alz.org/safety.