Tips for Managing Wandering

Kathleen Allen, LCSW, C-ASWCM

Senior Care Management Services, LLC

  • Expert Advice
Published on:
Senior walking

Learn helpful steps that caregivers can take to protect their loved ones from wandering.

Phil, a 93 year old gentleman with mild dementia, lived alone in an apartment complex in a large urban city. Well known and well-liked by many in the community, especially the management and staff, he spent his days walking around the complex of buildings, alternating between walking, using the weight room, the swimming pool, and taking naps. Sometimes those naps were on the local park benches. Once the family was aware of the park bench naps, they hired a companion to be with Phil throughout the day. Thankfully, Phil was very amenable to this new change. He liked his new companion very much, and they became fast friends. The family took note of how well their father responded to having the companion, in particular how his cognition improved.

Several months later though, they learned Phil was sometimes wandering out of his apartment at night, and often ended up outside. It seemed he woke up during the night and headed out the apartment door, down the hall, either down the elevator or down the stairs, and out the front door of the building. Sometimes he would end up outside at the front gate. No one knew how long this took place before the family discovered it, but thankfully he was never lost outside of his community, and no one took advantage of this small, elderly man. It gave them great pause, though, when they thought of what could have happened. 

This tells an all too common story of how wandering can take place. Unaware of what they are doing, or whether there is any danger, a person who wanders needs to be protected. It is estimated that six in ten persons with dementia will wander sometime during the course of their illness. Wandering can happen at any stage of the disease. There are steps caregivers can take to protect their loved ones from this possibility.

First Steps Toward Safety

For someone with Alzheimer’s, as long as they are able to walk, the risk of wandering is always present.  Some first steps to take to improve their safety of your loved one can be:

  • Enroll your loved one in medical alert system program, such as the Medic Alert Safe Return® Program. Make sure they carry identification, and wear the medical bracelet.
  • Have on hand a current photo or recent video, which could be used for identification.
  • Inform your neighbors of your loved one’s condition and tendency to wander.
  • Keep an up to date list of your loved one’s important information: age, sex, height, weight, and other physical features. Include blood type, health conditions, medication list, dental work, dietary needs, and any other pertinent information you think necessary for search personnel.
  • Label your loved one’s clothing. This can help in identification.

Preparing the Home

There are many things that can be done in the home to reduce the risk of wandering:

  • Keeps doors locked and add a deadbolt to the exit door at a level the person cannot reach (i.e. at the top of the door).  Note: Never lock a person with Alzheimer’s in the home alone or leave them unattended.
  • Camouflage the exit doors with large posters of something scenic so that it does not even look like a door. Doors can also be painted the same color as the walls to make them appear to be a wall. A big red “STOP” sign can be effective as well.
  • Fence the yard and put locks on the outside gates.
  • Put an “announcement” alarm on the exit doors so that you will know if it has been opened and can respond immediately to an exit by your loved one.
  • Secure the windows so that they can only be opened a small amount.
  • Have your loved one wear a GPS or other tracking device.

Providing Safety Each Day

Even with these precautions, a person with Alzheimer’s remains at risk of wandering, especially when confused, disoriented, or even bored. Other things to remember that can help minimize the possibility:

  • Always be sure your loved one is well nourished, hydrated and has been toileted, as hunger, thirst or needing the bathroom may cause him to go looking to satisfy these needs, and then forget what he had set out to do.
  • Provide a safe, uncluttered space for the person to pace.
  • Recall your loved one’s long time interests and experiment with similar activities to see what engages him.
  • Make sure there are repetitive things to do: rocking in a chair, sweeping, folding clothes.   

In Phil’s situation, his family started by adding a caregiver during the night hours. With the caregiver in place, they then added a few of the other safety measures such as enrolling him in the Safe Return program. While he continued to wake up at night and head for the front door, there was never another incident of wandering outside unattended.

About the author

Kathleen Allen_2

Kathleen Allen, LCSW, C-ASWCM

Senior Care Management Services, LLC

Kathleen Allen has been working with older adults and their families for over 20 years.

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