Home > Caregivers, Safety, Strategies, Wandering/elopement > What to Do About Wandering

What to Do About Wandering

One of the biggest risks for dementia patients living at home is wandering, either roaming around the home or actually leaving the home and then getting lost.  Almost monthly, I hear a news story giving identification information for a person with dementia, who has gotten lost.  And often these stories don’t have a good end, unfortunately.

How do we avoid such an occurrence?  There are a number of different things that can be done, and it’s usually a good idea to have some of these strategies in place before the person reaches the point where he/she is prone to wandering. Some of these have to do with how to find your loved one if you need to.  Here are some ideas:

  1. Locks on doors.  Doors are usually the first thing a person thinks about when leaving the house.  Bear in mind that, early in the disease, the person may still remember how to open the locks that have been in place for some time.  One way to get around this is to install a new kind of lock that may delay the person long enough to prevent escaping.  Be sure to put the lock either lower or higher than expected – out of the line of sight as the person stands in front of the door.  And don’t forget screen doors.  But, be aware that the person may become agitated if he can’t open a door he’s opened every day for years.
  2. Locks on windows.  Don’t forget about windows – even windows on an upper level.  Some persons with dementia get very crafty about finding ways to get out of a house.  (Paranoia is not unusual at some stages of the disease.)
  3. Alarms.  There are many different kinds of alarms available that will let you know if your loved one is attempting to leave the house.  These can often be obtained at electronics shops, or ask your local hospital or nursing home for suggestions.  An alarm can give you just enough time to prevent the person from leaving.  But, again, be aware that an alarm (especially a loud one) can startle the person and/or cause him to become overly agitated.  Some alarms will sound when a door is opened, or when stepped on.  Motion detectors can also be useful.
  4. Fences and gates.  These can be tricky, as most of them can be easy to climb over.  It has been suggested that a farm fence at least six feet tall, with squares that are too small to get a foot into, may be sufficient.  Be careful, though, because some neighbors or passers-by may take offense at your loved one being fenced in.  Often the best alternative is to have regularly scheduled walks or times when you go outside with your loved one.
  5. Emergency identification.  On the chance that your loved one does slip away, you need to have a mechanism in place to make it easier for you to find him.  (Hopefully.)  The Alzheimer’s Association makes a Safe Return bracelet which is quite nice.  If the person carries a telephone, it is possible to download an app with a GPS locator.  Or, even just sewing the person’s name and address in all of his clothing will be of assistance.
  6. Dress the person in brightly colored clothing.  If he does wander off, he will be more visible from a distance.  Some distinctive garment that can be easily recognizable in a crowd can help when at a busy shopping mall or some other event where there are a lot of people.  Be sure to make a mental note, when the person gets dressed in the morning, of what he is wearing in case you have to give a description to the police.
  7. Keep all keys out of reach, including car keys.  It’s easy to assume that a person has lost a particular skill, when in fact they have not.
  8. Never, ever leave a loved one alone in a car.  It’s so easy for him to open the door, thinking to go inside and look for you.  Or, a person with a short attention span may easily become frightened, thinking he has been abandoned, and go off in search of a familiar face.
  9. Avoid leaving your loved one at home alone.  Those who are the sole caregiver of a person with dementia are very much in need of assistance here.  Recruit friends and neighbors to help here, or arrange a visit from a beloved teen-aged grandchild.  Ask around in the community.  There may be agencies around that can give assistance in locating a sitter.  An excellent resource I came across recently is Lotsa Helping Hands (http://www.lotsahelpinghands.com/), a site that provides assistance in organizing care helpers for an individual or a community.
  10. Many long-term care facilities are finding ways to disguise doors, to prevent their residents from leaving.  After a certain stage in the disease, the vision becomes two-dimensional.  It’s possible to paint a black square in front of a door (or use a black rug), and the person will stay away from it thinking it is a hole.  Painting the door the same color as the adjacent wall can also help.  I heard of one facility that covered a glass sliding door with film that’s used for the back of aquariums to simulate water.  Be creative.
  11. There are many other strategies that have been found to be successful by various individuals.  I’ve heard of using baby monitors, or putting Christmas bells on a door, or putting a bell around the loved one’s ankle.  I even heard of one facility that trained a dog to divert residents who were trying to get out the door.  (It worked quite well, and the residents also enjoyed having a community pet.)

Wandering is a huge risk with these individuals.  One statistic showed that in 1999 32,000 persons wandered away from their homes or care facilities.  And, once the person has been gone for over 24 hours, the chances of finding him alive go down to 46%.  On the other hand, don’t let a fear of having your loved one wander off dominate your life.  Hopefully, with a few precautions taken early, the two of you can live a happy life for as long as they have left on this earth.

(inspired by information found at http://www.healingwell.com)

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