How to Stop the Alzheimer’s Wandering Crisis

Why Do People with Alzheimer’s and Dementia Wander?

Of course it’s difficult to imagine what it’s like to have Alzheimer’s or dementia, but there seem to be three primary causes of wandering for seniors with dementia:

1.Confusion

People with Alzheimer’s and other kinds of dementia can become confused and disoriented about their location and get lost in their own home or senior community. Sometimes this confusion peaks in the evening because of a dementia symptom known as sundowner’s syndrome.

2.Compulsion

Many of us have a friend or loved one with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or at least have seen characters with the illness portrayed in the media. Alzheimer’s and related disorders can prompt suffers to have a compulsion to just go “somewhere else.” Where that “somewhere else” is may not be clear or even known to the person with Alzheimer’s, but it can be a strong and almost irresistible urge. Family caregivers can sometimes use redirection (healthy distractions) when a senior has gotten stuck in a compulsive mindset.

3.The Sensation of Needing to go Home

Even when seniors with Alzheimer’s disease have been residing in the same house for decades, they may not feel at home (perhaps yearning for their childhood home, instead). In the above mentioned Times article, the husband of an Alzheimer’s patient, John Machett tells a classic story: “It started with five words. – ‘I want to go home’ even though this is her home.” People with this type of drive are often said to be an “elopement risk” because they will take extreme measures to get to where they think they belong (even if that place is merely illusory). Because people with this type of wandering can be so stubbornly determined to leave wherever it is they happen to be, they often require secured memory care.

 

If You Have a Wanderer in Your Family

 

Caring for a loved one who has wandering issues is one of the most difficult aspects of family caregiving. Here are some rules of thumb that that could help prevent many cases of wondering:

•An elderly person with occasional bouts of confusion may require less supervision, but caregivers still must be careful about leaving such seniors alone.

•If a senior is at risk of wandering, enroll him or her in your local “Silver Alert” directory or a similar registry if one is available. (See more on Silver Alert Programs below).

•Loved ones of seniors at risk of wandering can notify trusted neighbors in a block radius, introducing them to the senior if feasible.

•Seniors with serious wandering problems can’t be safely left alone and require constant supervision.

•Care teams made of visiting caregivers, family, and even kindly neighbors can help provide companionship and provide supervision to seniors who wander.

•To keep a loved one from wandering away at night, consider house adaptations such as “hard-to-reach slide bolts for doors or doors disguised with hanging towels” according to Dave Baldridge, Executive, Director of International Association for Indigenous Aging.

•Explore monitoring and tracking technologies (also discussed below), but don’t become over-reliant on them.

 

Despite caregivers’ best efforts, the required patchwork approach to 24-7 care often doesn’t hold, especially in the later stages of Alzheimer’s when wandering may be coupled with aggression or other behaviors unmanageable by non-professionals. Many families choose memory care facilities if care become unmanageable at home.

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