For those with Alzheimer’s, wandering off and getting lost is a severe issue and a significant worry for their families. Statistics show that more than half of those with Alzheimer’s will wander off at some point and that this can occur during the disease, even if it hasn’t happened in the past.
It may seem complicated to believe that someone frail or slow-moving could wander off without anyone noticing, but it happens more often than we’d like to think. Sadly, some of those who do wander off have dreadful experiences and outcomes as a result. As a caregiver, it’s critical to do all you can to keep your older adult safe and home where s/he is supposed to be.
There are many reasons why someone with Alzheimer’s might accidentally wander off. Those with dementia may revert to old routines, thinking it’s time to pick a child up from school or go to work, so they head out the front door and down the street. They may also be bored and try to find something interesting to do. They might simply be looking for a snack, a bathroom, or fresh air, and get lost along the way. They could react out of fear or stress, as if the environment is overstimulating, a loud noise confused them, or their surroundings are unfamiliar. Lastly, they might set out to look for someone or something and end up hopelessly lost.
Fortunately, there are several ways to try to prevent seniors from wandering off, or to keep them safe if they do get lost:
1. Install door and window alarms and locks. The key is to make it difficult for them to leave the house. This can be accomplished through simple home safety modifications that make it hard for them to open outside doors. Examples are adding childproof door knob covers, installing additional locks at the tops of doors (out of seniors’ line of sight), installing door and window alarms that alert you if they’re opened, using pressure-sensitive alarm mats in bed to let you know if they get up at night, or using a SafeWander alarm that is triggered if a threshold is crossed. Be sure that doors can still be opened quickly by caregivers in the event of a fire or other emergency.
2. Camouflage any doors that lead to the outside. If you cover up doors or place large signs on them, those with dementia either won’t be able to find them or won’t open them. You could hang a dark curtain from a curtain rod, or place signs that say “Do not enter” on the door. Even placing a dark mat in front of the door can be effective, as seniors often think dark areas on the floor are holes and won’t walk over them.
3. Mark interior doors. Let them know where the bathroom, kitchen, or bedroom are by adding large signs or pictures on those doors or leaving a light on in the bathroom at night.
4. Resolve triggers causing wandering behavior. You may discover a pattern if you closely observe when the wandering is happening and what they were doing or saying just before they left. You can determine if the behavior is caused by boredom, a physical need, or a desire to return to an old routine, and then take appropriate steps accordingly. For example, you could find meaningful activities to help keep them engaged or get them a snack or a bathroom trip to ensure they’re comfortable. You may need to tell a reassuring fib, like saying it’s a holiday so the office is closed today, or their child is going on a playdate after school, so s/he doesn’t need to be picked up. If they’re searching for something or someone, you could tell them it’s being repaired, or that the person has been delayed for a couple of days.
5. Enroll them in a safe return program. If you do lose older adults, it will be much easier to find them if you enroll them in a program like the Alzheimer’s Association’s MedicAlert Safe Return. This will provide a wearable ID that allows people (including law enforcement) to identify a found senior and contact you. You can call a 24/7 toll-free support line to report someone missing. You can also check with local law enforcement agencies to see if they offer programs that help families locate missing older adults.
6. Be sure they’re wearing a GPS device at all times. These devices send out tracking devices that can be followed by rescue personnel. This can be either a wearable wristband or a SmartSole that’s hidden in shoe insoles. Check with your local law enforcement agencies to see if they offer locator services like SafetyNet or Project Lifesaver.
7. Hide keys, purses, or wallets. If you’re running an errand and taking a quick bathroom break, seniors could drive off before you return if your car keys are accessible. Either hide them or consider adding a steering wheel lock to your car. You may also want to hide your purse or wallet since some people won’t leave the house without these essentials.
8. Be prepared by taking advance precautions. If you snap a quick photo of them each morning, you’ll always know what they’re wearing if you must show it to rescue personnel. Ensure all your neighbors have your contact information, alert them to your older adult’s wandering behavior. Another good idea is to sew or iron ID labels with contact information onto all their clothes.
While there’s no guarantee you can prevent your senior with Alzheimer’s from wandering off, taking the above steps can help ensure that they can be safely found and returned home if they get lost. Contact Cahoon Care.