How to Prevent Dementia Patients from Wandering
Tricks and strategies for keeping your loved one safely planted
Few things are more frightening than having a vulnerable loved one go missing. It’s one of the worst things a parent of a young child could imagine — but it can be just as terrifying when a loved one with dementia wanders away.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 6 in 10 people who have dementia will wander at some point. Knowing what to do in that situation — and better still, how to prevent it from happening in the first place — is vital. Mayo Clinic experts and Elaine Dyer, RN, administrator of skilled nursing at the Helen Bader Center for Alzheimer’s and Dementia Care, in Milwaukee, have some smart strategies for keeping Mom or Dad safe and sound and under the right roof.
Provide your loved one a daily walk. Many people with Alzheimer’s disease wander simply because they want to go outside, according to the Mayo Clinic. If someone with dementia tends to wander at the same time every day, try taking him (or having a caregiver take him) for a walk at that time every day. “It helps people with dementia sleep better at night, which can help prevent wandering in the wee hours,” Dyer says.
Create a circular walking trail. People with dementia often suffer from stress and fear, and those feelings may prompt them to wander in order to calm themselves down, according to the Mayo Clinic. If possible, build a circular walking trail in the back yard or look for a day facility that has one so your loved one can work off some anxiety by “wandering” in circles. Plus, the exercise may help slow progression of the disease. In a study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, researchers found Alzheimer’s patients who exercised an hour twice a week on an inside circular walking trail (along with some strength, balance and flexibility training) deteriorated less when it came to performing activities of daily living.
Combat boredom. Wandering may also mean your loved one is bored, so take steps to provide engaging activities during the day.
Look for other clues to what’s behind the wandering. “Each patient has a different reason for being restless,” Dyer says. “For example, an elderly woman might think she’s a young mother again, and can’t find her baby.” Providing a baby doll to hold may help calm her and keep her from trying to leave. “To a person with dementia, it seems like a real infant,” says Dyer. Is your loved one looking for her spouse, or one of the children? If she can still read, Mayo Clinic experts suggest hanging a sign that says the longed-for person will be visiting soon.
Lock down the house. Install locks on doors and windows high up where the person can’t easily see them. But don’t be surprised if your loved one figures out how to spring himself. “People with dementia often are still very curious and clever,” Dyer says.
Consider a quiet alarm. Consider outfitting doors and windows with bells or a quiet alarm to alert you if the person tries to leave. (A loud buzzer may frighten or agitate someone with dementia.) Again, though, says Dyer, “I’ve seen dementia patients figure out ways to silence the ringing, so it isn’t completely foolproof.”
Try the black carpet trick. Put a square of black carpet in front of any doors you don’t want your loved one to pass through. “Dementia often makes patients see the black carpet as a black hole, so they will walk around it to avoid it,” Dyer explains. “They still have their primitive instincts and will not go near anything they see as an abyss.”
Schedule some daily quiet time. At Dyer’s center, “our patients have ‘reflection hour’ between 1:45 and 2:45 in the afternoon,” she says. “We play soft music and they do low-level activities, such as crafts or an art class. It settles them down so they eat their dinner more easily a little later on, which in turn helps them sleep better.”
Amp up the late-afternoon lighting. It may seem counterintuitive, but as the day fades and shadows set in, use broad-spectrum lighting to brighten things up. A darkening environment can contribute to dementia patients’ agitation and restlessness, a condition known as sundowning.
Jury rig your car battery. Hiding your car keys is a smart idea so your loved one can’t attempt to drive away, but dementia patients sometimes find them anyway. Consider installing a battery switch under the hood of your car. Sure, you’ll have to flip it before you can go anywhere, but that’s better than having your loved one hit the road (and possibly hurt someone or become the victim of a carjacking).
Sign up for Safe Return. MedicAlert and the Alzheimer’s Association have teamed up to offer Safe Return, a 24-hour nationwide emergency response program for people with dementia who wander off. You’ll get jewelry your loved one can wear that lists personal information and an 800 number that anyone who finds your loved one can call to get in touch with you. For more information visit alz.org.
If your loved one goes missing, act fast. Do a quick check of your yard and your house (“She might have gotten into a closet and not know how to get out again,” Dyer warns). Then call 911 and ask neighbors if they’ve seen your family member walking by.
In people with dementia, wanderlust usually isn't spurred by a desire to explore, but rather, by anxiety, restlessness or confusion. Working to address these root causes — and instituting some failsafes at the same time — is the best way to keep your loved one comfortable and secure.