elderly couple holding hands wandering outside

The Behaviors and Stages of Wandering in Seniors

Wandering or getting lost is a common sign of Alzheimer’s or other diseases involving dementia. Noticing that a loved one is consistently going missing is stressful, and it can make you feel concerned for their safety. If you notice that your loved one is going missing often, or is returning late from meetings or activities, they may be wandering. Understanding wandering is important for gaining a foundation as to how you can help your loved one stop wandering. Here is everything you need to know about this symptom of dementia.

Who Is At Risk For Wandering?

Anyone who has Alzheimer’s or another disease that involves dementia is at risk for wandering, but there are some signs to watch out for that may be evidence that your loved one is getting lost. These signs include:
  • Returning from a meeting or regular walk later than normal
  • Trying or wanting to “go home” even when at home
  • Forgetting how to get to familiar locations
  • Having difficulty locating rooms in their own home
  • Talking about fulfilling obligations from their past, such as going to work or school
  • Asking where past family and friends are
  • Becoming nervous in crowded areas
  • Appearing confused or dazed in a new environment
  • Acting as if performing a chore or activity, but getting nothing done

Why Do People with Dementia Wander?

Not all individuals with dementia or other cognitive disabilities wander, but it is a common symptom. There are many different reasons why someone with dementia might wander off.
  • Stress or fear: Oftentimes, individuals with dementia may feel uncomfortable or concerned, yet are unable to properly express their wants or needs. In an attempt to remove themselves from a stressful situation, they may physically wander away from it.
  • Basic needs: An individual may wander off to look for food if they’re hungry or a bathroom if they need to go. They may not communicate exactly where they are going.
  • Searching: It’s possible that your loved one with dementia is trying to search for someone or something. This might cause them to get lost.
  • Following past routines: An individual with dementia may believe that they are still meant to follow routines from their past. They might try to go to work, or even school, which can result in what appears to be wandering. 
There might even be visual-spatial reasons as to why an individual with dementia gets lost, as this disease affects parts of the brain that’s important for visual guidance. Sometimes, an individual might even forget where they’re going in their own home.

Preventing Wandering

Wandering isn’t an inherently unsafe thing. It is sometimes an inevitable symptom of dementia and doesn’t pose safety issues if it occurs in a controlled environment. However, wandering can be very dangerous if your loved one leaves home in severe weather conditions or ends up in a secluded location. There’s no way to fully guarantee that your loved one won’t wander off, but you can try some of these preventative measures to gain peace of mind.

Keep Them Busy

Wandering might be a byproduct of boredom, so if you can keep your loved one occupied you reduce the risk of them leaving the given location. You can give them meaningful activities to complete such as folding laundry or setting a dinner table. This helps to give them a purpose and often comes with the satisfaction of seeing their work completed.

Identify When They Wander

Many patients with dementia will wander at specific times of day, so if you can identify the period when this is most likely to occur, you can schedule activities around that time to ease feelings of agitation and restlessness. If your loved one experiences sundowning, which is a state of late-day confusion in the evening or late afternoon, it is especially important to try to prevent wandering. It can be much more difficult to locate your loved one in the dark, and it can also be much more unsafe for them to be out at this time depending where they go.

Make Sure Their Basic Needs Are Met

Individuals with dementia may wander to look for food, drinks, or other basic needs. If you can make sure they have easy access to snacks and toileting, you might be able to reduce the risk of them needing to search. On a somewhat counterintuitive note, you may want to consider reducing the amount of liquid they drink a few hours before bed so they don’t need to wake in the middle of the night to use the restroom.

Reduce Access To Transportation

People with dementia can wander in other ways besides walking. If your loved one no longer drives, remove their access to car keys. They may forget that they can no longer drive and get into an accident just by trying to swing by the grocery store. 

Make Their Living Space Safer

You can make sure your home is “wander proof” by doing a few things to prevent your loved one’s ability to leave. Place deadbolt locks in high or low locations on exterior doors so that they are unable to reach them. Additionally, you can install warning bells, cameras, or security systems so you or a caretaker is alerted when someone tries to leave the building. Wandering inside the home may be unstoppable, but you can make it safer so that your loved one doesn’t get hurt. Use night lights throughout the house so they can always see where they are going. Also, consider creating common areas that can be safely explored with less potential for tripping or falling. You may also want to label doors in your home so they know the function of each room before entering. This can help prevent them from accidentally opening an exterior door and wandering outside when trying to locate a bathroom or bedroom.

What To Do When Wandering Occurs

It can be very scary when your family member with dementia becomes lost, but there are some things you can do to locate them quickly. The first course of action is to remain calm. Most individuals who wander can be found within just 1.5 miles of where they went missing.
  • Consider if they are left or right handed. Wandering patterns tend to follow the direction of their dominant hand.
  • Look around natural landscapes like ponds or forests. Many wanderers are found in bushes or other types of fauna.
  • Gather family or friends and search the surrounding area, splitting up and covering as much ground as possible.
  • If they’ve wandered before, check locations that they’ve gone to in the past.
If you have not located the individual within 15 minutes, call 911 and file a missing person’s report. Be sure to inform authorities that the individual has dementia, as they may not remember who they are when found.

Plan Ahead

Wandering might happen no matter how many preventative measures are put in place. However, there are some things you can do to make it easier for our loved one to be found quickly and safely. First, have the person carry an ID or wear a medical bracelet that can be easily identified. If a person notices that someone is wandering, they may approach them and be able to return them to you safely. Better yet, have them wear a GPS tracking bracelet that gives you the ability to locate them no matter where they go. You can also try enrolling them into a safe-return program. For a small fee, they’ll receive an ID bracelet and you’ll receive access to 24 hour support in case of emergency. 

In Conclusion

Wandering is a common symptom of dementia, but that doesn’t make it any less stressful and scary for family members involved. Wandering often occurs when a dementia patient is searching for something, trying to escape a stressful situation, or is trying to obtain a basic need. If you notice that a loved one is returning home late, mentioning past activities that they no longer do, or is having trouble remembering familiar locations, they may be at risk for wandering. You can help prevent wandering by identifying times of day when it occurs, ensuring that they have activities lined up during those moments. It may also be helpful to take away their car keys if they no longer drive, and prepare their home with labeled doors and security systems to monitor their whereabouts. If they do wander off, search as soon as possible within a 1.5 mile radius. Look in natural landscapes or in past locations where they’ve gone missing before. If it’s been more than 15 minutes, contact 911. Your loved one may also benefit from psychiatric care or a specialist service like the Lightyear Health. Our professional psychiatrists with experience in geriatric behavioral healthcare are highly skilled in helping to reduce unsafe behaviors associated with wandering.  Contact us today to see how we can help put your mind at ease. Sources: Sundowning: Late-day confusion | The Mayo Clinic Wandering | Alzheimer’s Association

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