Senior Wandering: Signs and Prevention Methods

Apr 27, 2017

Senior Wandering: Signs and Prevention Methods

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As much as we like to encourage our loved ones to get moving and stay healthy, sometimes seniors can be a little more mobile than they should be. For those with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, senior wandering can be a challenge for caregivers and requires the utmost attention. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, six in 10 people with dementia are prone to wandering — putting them at a higher risk of mental and physical distress, and even sustaining an injury. Seniors who wander do so for a variety of reasons and to varying levels of success, so understanding the basics of this aspect of Alzheimer’s and dementia can help caregivers avoid difficulties and other potential safety issues for their loved ones. 

Senior Wandering: Is My Loved One Prone to it? 

What may seem like just a casual stroll can quickly turn into a risk-laden walk for someone with dementia. And while staying physically mobile is important for seniors, considering the signs of wandering will help to understand how best to support your senior loved one. 

Even for those in the early stages of conditions like Alzheimer’s and dementia, seniors can become disoriented and confused. This may be somewhat shocking to caregivers and other family members, especially if a senior individual appears lost in their own home or in extremely familiar environments. Some general signs that may indicate a senior is at risk of wandering include:

  • Returning from routine walks or drives later than usual
  • Wants to “go home” even at their own residence
  • Repetitive pacing or aimless, restless movement
  • Difficulties with finding familiar places like the bathroom, bedroom, etc.
  • Attempting chores without ever completing them (losing focus)
  • Asks the whereabouts of friends or family without context

As mentioned, discouraging seniors from getting up and moving can be equally as detrimental to one’s health as wandering as a result of Alzheimer’s or dementia — it all comes down to caregiver attentiveness and supervision. 

Considering that most people with dementia are inclined to stay within familiar settings and boundaries, managing senior wandering inside the home is a good place to start. If someone is already receiving care for their condition, it’s likely that they’ve been leading a daily routine with structured activities. This helps to create a sense of rhythm in someone’s life that they can rely on — even if things become confusing or disorientation ensues.

Some people wander in an attempt to meet their basic needs such as reaching the bathroom, eating, drinking, or searching for something in their home. The problem is that dementia can prevent seniors from staying on task, causing them to pace or circle an area to no avail. It’s the duty of caregivers to facilitate a steady routine that can ensure these needs are met, while helping a senior feel as though they are in a safe and familiar environment — at times much easier said than done.

Of course, striking the right balance between a proper living space and a secure environment can be tricky for those seniors prone to wandering. You want a home to feel dignified and inviting to a person, while taking care to install things like locks, perhaps childproof doorknobs, or even devices that emit sounds when doors or windows are opened. Sure, it can feel like you’re overdoing it, but consider what dangers might arise should your loved one wander off without the supervision they need — such scenarios are rather unthinkable. Similarly, it’s important that those with dementia be supervised even in a home environment with the right amount of security. 

Senior Wandering While Venturing Out

With a properly designed and supervised home environment, the next step is understanding the challenges involved with things like transportation and venturing out into public spaces. Although someone with dementia may petition their caretakers to allow them to go for a quick drive or walk, it’s not quite that simple. 

Again, this will come down to planning how your senior will be getting to their appointments, seeing friends and family, or just getting some fresh air. As much as we’d like to give our loved ones the independence they deserve, the risk of allowing them to get themselves from point A to B just stops being feasible with dementia at a certain point. Don’t wait until someone gets lost as a result of wandering — instead consider the following:

  • Keep an emergency call list: Should a loved one wander off, keep a list of the potential places they might be inclined to go — whether that means the homes of friends and family, restaurants, or other places in the community.
  • Maintain a recent, close-up photo and current medical information to give the police for easier identification.
  • Consider buying a piece of ID jewelry or an electronic tracking device to quickly and accurate hone in on a person’s location.
  • Wandering generally follows the person’s dominant hand in terms of the direction they choose to travel — knowing this may help guide a search party’s efforts.

If your senior loved one does wander off, begin search-and-rescue efforts immediately. Call “911” and report that a “vulnerable adult” with Alzheimer’s is missing, prompting a Missing Report to be filed. Additionally, if the person is equipped with a MedicAlert®+ Alzheimer's Association Safe Return® device, call 1.800.625.3780 to initiate a response here as well. 94% of cases of a senior wandering result in the person being found within 1.5 miles of the location they left from, and yet it’s important to consider all the options as to where a loved one might have gone.

Hopefully, you’ll never have to deal with having a loved one wander off, however, properly preparing for the event will help with their safe return. Dementia and Alzheimer’s can be a debilitating disease – the more you know the better you’ll be!

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