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Living With Alzheimer's >> Behavior Basics | 04.24.15

Wandering: when a stroll becomes dangerous

Walking is among the abilities that people with dementia usually retain long after other skills have been lost. Going for a walk is good exercise and stimulating to the senses. However as the dementia progresses, the person’s ability to assess their surroundings begins to fail, and this can lead to wandering if the person is not carefully supervised.

Wandering is sometimes preceded by delusions that the person needs to “go home” or report for work. They might insist on leaving the premises. If they are prevented from leaving, they may react with anger or distress. However if they manage to slip away unattended, they are in danger of becoming lost and injured, either due to exposure to the elements, a traffic accident or a related mishap.

Why is this happening?

People who wander are often searching for someone or something. Sometimes it can be as simple as trying to find a bathroom or a snack. For others, wandering is a means of escape when they become anxious or stressed. If the person tends to wander seemingly on schedule, they could be reliving a lifelong routine like leaving for work at the same time each day.

How should you respond?

You can try to prevent wandering by keeping the person with dementia engaged in activities that might help alleviate restlessness and anxiety. Keep a close watch on physical needs that might spur wandering, such as hunger and desire to use the bathroom.

Here are some safety strategies to adopt when wandering occurs:

  • Provide a safe home environment. People who wander throughout a home can become injured, especially in the dark. Keep paths clear of tripping hazards such as throw rugs and place nightlights at regular intervals. If you have stairs, install gates to prevent falls.
  • Use warning alarms. Alarms that signal when doors are open and pressure sensitive mat alarms can alert you to a potential unexpected stroll. Childproof covers on doorknobs may also stymie a person about to wander.
  • Use a GPS enabled device. Equipping the person with a smart phone or a similar GPS device with the appropriate location software installed will let you keep tabs on a person’s whereabouts continually.
  • Allow room to wander. If you have a large enough fenced yard, you can provide a safe area for the person to walk unaccompanied should they feel the need to explore their surroundings.
  • Be prepared. Always be prepared for the possibility that you may lose track of a person with dementia. Keep a list of emergency phone numbers and have a recent photo of the person available for authorities. Also make sure your neighbors know if a loved one is prone to wandering so they can provide an additional set of eyes and ears in aiding the person’s safe return home.


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