Alzheimer's: Understand and control wandering

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Alzheimer's: Understand and control wandering

Alzheimer's disease can erase a person's memory of once-familiar surroundings, as well as make it extremely difficult to adapt to new surroundings. As a result, people who have Alzheimer's may wander away from their homes or care centers and turn up lost, frightened and disoriented — sometimes far from where they started.

Understanding wandering

More than 60 percent of people who have Alzheimer's wander at some point, according to the Alzheimer's Association. Often, someone who's wandering is:

  • Searching for something. Wanderers are often looking for something or someone familiar, especially if they recently moved to a new environment. In other cases, wanderers are trying to satisfy a basic need, such as hunger or thirst — but they've forgotten what to do or where to go. Many wanderers are looking for a bathroom.
  • Escaping from something. Sometimes wandering is a result of stress, anxiety or too much stimulation, such as multiple conversations in the background or even the noise of pots and pans in the kitchen. In other cases, restlessness or wandering is a reaction to pain.
  • Reliving the past. If wandering occurs at the same time every day, it may be linked to a lifelong routine. For example, a woman who tries to leave the nursing home every day at 5 p.m. may believe she's going home from work.

In other cases, wandering is triggered by medication side effects.

Preventing wandering

If you're caring for a loved one who has Alzheimer's, use simple strategies to curb wandering:

  • Address potential triggers. Offer your loved one a snack, a glass of water or use of the bathroom. Encourage physical activity to curb restlessness and promote better sleep. If you think your loved one is looking for something familiar, provide a family photo album or share favorite memories.
  • Provide visual cues. People who have Alzheimer's often forget where they are, even inside their own homes. It might help to post descriptive photos on the doors to various rooms, such as the bathroom, bedroom and kitchen. Encourage your loved one to explore his or her immediate environment as often as necessary.
  • Plan activities and other distractions. If your loved one tends to wander at the same time every day, a planned activity at that hour could stem the wandering. It might be as simple as asking the person to fold a basket of towels or put place mats on the table for dinner. If wandering outdoors is an issue, you may want to store coats, boots and keys out of sight.

Keeping your loved one safe

Despite your best efforts, it may be impossible to completely prevent wandering. Consider these techniques to minimize problems related to wandering:

  • Reduce hazards. Remove tripping hazards, such as throw rugs and extension cords. Install night lights to aid nighttime wanderers. Put gates at stairwells to prevent falls.
  • Provide a place to wander safely. If wandering isn't associated with distress or a physical need, you may want to focus simply on providing a safe place for walking or exploration — such as a path through the rooms of your house or a circular trail through a fenced backyard.
  • Install alarms and locks. Various devices can alert you that your loved one is on the move. You might place pressure-sensitive alarm mats at the door or at your loved one's bedside, put warning bells on doors and use childproof covers on doorknobs. If your loved one tends to unlock doors, you might install sliding bolt locks out of your loved one's line of sight.
  • Camouflage doors. To short-circuit a compulsion to wander into off-limits rooms, you might place curtains over doors or camouflage doors with paint or wallpaper that matches the surrounding walls. A mirror or a stop sign on the door might help, too.
  • Use a GPS device. You might consider having your loved one wear a GPS or other tracking device that can send electronic alerts about his or her location. If your loved one wanders, the GPS device can help you find him or her quickly.

Ensuring a safe return

Wanderers who get lost can be difficult to find because they often behave unpredictably. For example, they may not call for help or respond to searchers' calls. Once found, wanderers may not remember their names or where they live.

If you're concerned about your loved one's wandering, inform your neighbors and other close contacts about your loved one's condition. Keep a list of emergency phone numbers handy in case you can't find your loved one. Also consider enrolling in a safe-return program — such as the one provided by the Alzheimer's Association. Participants receive an identification bracelet and access to 24-hour support in case of emergency.

If your loved one is lost, contact local authorities and the safe-return program — if you've enrolled — right away. A search should begin immediately, typically beginning in a five-mile radius of where the person was last seen.

Last Updated: 2010-02-18
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