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How to Deal with Dementia Patients Wandering
Wandering in people with dementia is something that hits very close to home for me because it almost cost my Grandpa his life.
A couple of years ago, my family and I took a small holiday away and brought my Grandpa with us. We stayed in a little cottage just off the coast, and my Grandpa wandered away without any of us realizing it.
It took us hours to find him, by which time he was extraordinarily sunburnt and had almost been hit by a car in traffic. He was distressed and confused, and I will never forget that day because of it.
The point is that wandering is very common and extremely dangerous in people with dementia, and it’s something that you need to be aware of if you’re taking care of a loved one who has dementia.
What is Wandering?
“Wandering” refers to a variety of behaviors that can result in your loved one with dementia becoming lost – inside or outside. Ultimately, wandering worsens as their dementia worsens.
Here are some quick facts about wandering that you need to know:
- It’s a very common behavior associated with dementia
- It can happen at any time during the day or night
- It can occur on foot, by car, or even on public transportation
- It’s very dangerous, as it can lead your loved one outdoors and into dangerous situations such as traffic and extreme weather
Reasons Why Your Loved One Wanders
It can be both challenging and frustrating to understand why your loved one wanders. While each person has their reasons for wandering, there are some common reasons why your loved one might do it:
- They might not have a good outlet for their energy
- They might be bored and trying to find something to do
- They could be experiencing delusions or hallucinations
- They might get confused and believe they need to leave the house to go to work as they once did – for example
- They might be too hot or cold where they currently are
- They might be uncomfortable and go searching for something to alleviate this discomfort
- They may no longer recognize their own home and try to go somewhere familiar
- They could find themselves in a new environment and become disorientated
- They could be restless and sleep-deprived which makes them confuse day and night
How to Keep Your Loved One Safe
As you can see, safety is a huge issue when it comes to wandering. The reality is that you can’t always keep your eyes on your loved one, so you need to take as many precautionary measures as possible to try and ensure their safety as far as possible.
However, there’s a fine line between keeping your loved one safe and controlling their movement. While you want to keep your loved one safe, you also what to ensure that they have some form of autonomy and can come and go as they please within reason.
Bearing this in mind, a combination of coping strategies is needed. Personally, I’ve found these five key strategies to be helpful for my Grandpa:
Making Safety Changes To Their Environment
Having a safe, comfortable environment for my Grandpa to move around in, but also stay safe is very important to him and us as a family.
Helping him wandering safely by putting sound-sensitive monitors or bells on doors and windows so that he can walk around the house, but we know when he has opened a door leading outside
Spending time with him outside every day in a secure area
Providing visual cues by keeping familiar objects around him, leaving lights on, having clocks and calendars where he can see them, putting labels on doors so that he knows what he will find through each one
Making sure we keep the things that “trigger” him and prompt his wandering away. For example, we make sure that car keys are out of sight that he doesn’t think to pick them up and get in the car and also monitor him for “sundowning” later in the day.
Helping Them Exercise
Exercising is so essential for my Grandpa, as it really helps with some of his negative behaviors.
Helping my Grandpa exercise every day uses up his extra energy and improves his sleep patterns
Walking outside with him every day provides him with stimulation while giving him a change of scenery from the house
Developing Meaningful Activities For Him To Do
Helping my Grandpa participate in activities that he finds to be meaningful makes him feel successful and improves his mood.
My Grandpa has always been a family man, so sitting together and going through photo albums of family events and holidays always puts a smile on his face and encourages conversation. Maybe your loved one has something similar that they enjoy?
I encourage my Grandpa to get involved in the day-to-day activities of the house, like cooking, or even just helping wash the dishes. We do it together, and I can sense the lift in his mood when he sees that he is accomplishing something
Importantly, I make sure that I don’t get upset with him if he doesn’t do these tasks right. I stay flexible and patient with him and guide him through it, and I even change the job altogether if I see that he’s having quite a bit of trouble with that particular activity
Keeping Records Of His Wandering Behavior
This is probably one of the most important and helpful things that my family has implemented. By keeping a journal of my Grandpa’s wandering behavior, we have learned how to predict his patterns better and understand when he is likely to wander.
We have also figured out what his personal triggers are, which has helped us put strategies in place to ensure his safety. Some questions we answer in the journal include:
- Was the wandering dangerous?
- Why did it happen?
- How long did he wander for?
- What helped him calm down and stop wandering?
The Hartford Centre for Mature Market Excellence has a fantastic 40-page PDF resource on disaster planning in the unfortunate event that your loved one does happen to wander, and you cannot find them. I highly recommend it, and you can access the document by clicking here.
Establishing A Support Care Network
We’ve made sure that our close neighbors are aware of my Grandpa’s condition and what to do should they find him wandering. To help our community help us, we’ve made sure that my Grandpa can be easily identified.
He wears an ID bracelet with a short description of his condition and who to contact in the event of him being lost.
We have an identification kit at home with all critical information on hand should he go missing and we have to contact the police or another emergency department
We have enabled the GPS feature on his cell phone so that we can track his movements of he goes missing
It’s never nice to think of horrible events that might happen, especially when your loved one is involved, but you must plan for wandering events and try and prevent them as far as possible to help avert crises.
Take it from someone who has had the living daylights scared out of them from their Grandpa with dementia. Wandering is a severe side-effect of dementia, and it can be hazardous.
Your loved one relies on you to ensure their well-being, so make sure you take your role as caregiver seriously and do everything in your power to prevent wandering disasters from happening.