Wandering: what is it and how to prepare

Six in 10 individuals with dementia will wander at some point. Many will do so repeatedly, putting themselves in harm’s way. For caregivers, the stress of worrying about wandering can weigh heavily. However, there are actions that can be taken to reduce the risk and plan ahead.

What is wandering?

Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia cause people to lose their ability to recognize familiar places and faces. It is common for them to wander or become lost or confused about a location. Anyone living with dementia is at risk for wandering.

Signs that a person might be at risk for wandering include returning from a regular walk or drive later than usual, forgetting how to get to familiar places, trying or wanting to “go home,” asking the whereabouts of past family and friends, and becoming nervous or anxious in crowded areas.

How can I plan ahead?

As the disease progresses and the risk for wandering increases, assess your individual situation to see which of the safety measures below might work best. These actions might help reduce the risk of wandering and bring piece of mind to caregivers, however these actions cannot guarantee a person living with dementia won’t wander.

  • Place deadbolts out of the line of sight, either high or low, on exterior doors. Do not leave a person living with dementia unsupervised in new or changed surroundings and never lock a person in at home.
  • Install warning bells above doors or use monitoring devices that signal when a door is open.
  • Consider enrolling the person in a wandering response service. Check with your local police department to see what they offer.
  • Ask neighbors, friends and family to call if they see the person wandering, lost or dressed inappropriately.
  • Keep a recent, close-up photo of the person on hand to give to police, should the need arise.

What do I do if they wander?

Start your search efforts immediately. When looking, consider whether they are right or left handed – wandering patterns generally follow the direction of the dominant hand. Begin by looking in the surrounding area as many people who wander are found within 1.5 miles of where they disappeared. If you cannot find them within 15 minutes, call 911 to file a missing person’s report. Inform the authorities the person has dementia.

For more information on wandering and what you can do, visit alz.org/wandering or call the Alzheimer’s Association 24/7 Helpline at 800.272.3900. Check out this one-page resource on wandering to help you prepare in English and Spanish.

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