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Some caregivers fear this behavior more than any other.
Others think “It will never happen to my loved one.”
There are many misconceptions about wandering and what causes it.
“If someone doesn’t walk a lot before Dementia they will not wander now with Dementia.” The truth is that if the person with dementia can walk they can also wander. The level of confusion that occurs with dementia can motivate an individual to do things they would not do if they could think clearly. Wandering usually occurs because the individual is looking for someone, or something or a trying to find a feeling of belonging a.k.a. “home”. Any individual with Dementia who asks to go home, looks for their spouse or children, tries to go to work at a job they no longer have, cannot remember where items are that are important to them has the potential to wander.
“If someone “knows” where they are they will not wander.” With dementia they may know where they are one minute and forget the next. It is important to be careful about trusting their memory to retain any information. Assumptions should be made on the side of safety not the side of risk. When working on a secure dementia unit one of my pet peeves was family members who would come and pick up mom or dad for an outing, take them off the unit and leave them unattended in the hallway while they used the bathroom. Every time I ran across one of these residents in the hall alone and asked why they were there without fail they would tell me they didn’t know. If you don’t know that you are waiting for someone then there is no reason to wait if you can’t remember what or who you are waiting for. This is a situation set up to encourage wandering.
“The weather is nice so the risk is not high even if they do wander.” Nice weather does not eliminate the risks of walking in front of traffic because they cannot remember pedestrian etiquette. Lovely weather does not prevent them from losing their balance or footing on uneven surfaces or pavements causing falls that they cannot problem solve about how to manage or accommodate. God forbid they should fall near or in water or hit their head.
“We have visited our daughter many times in the past. She’ll be fine at her house.” A new environment is overwhelming even if vaguely familiar. If you have ever gone on vacation and woken up in a strange room wondering where you are you have just a small inkling of what dementia feels like. The difference is people with Dementia feel that way in familiar places so the stress of the unfamiliar is very traumatic. A new environment can trigger a search for the familiar, often by wandering.
“My loved one goes for a walk alone everyday and they always follow the same route, they are safe.” What if something on the route changes. Something miniscule like a different color siding on a house that was a landmark or a tree being taken down that was a path marker for your family member and could throw off their sense of direction. People with dementia should not walk alone for any distance out of the sight of the caregiver. If you are taking this risk be ready to drop everything and search for them if they don’t come home as expected. The far better and safer choice would be to walk with them.
“They will not go far because they are too feeble otherwise.” People with dementia do not recognize physical limitations like thirst or fatigue or shortness of breath. They go out in the winter without coats and wear coats in the dead heat of summer. They continue to do what they do because of whatever underlying thought is motivating them. Thoughts like, “I have to find my children”, “I have to get to work”, “My parents will be mad if I don’t get home soon.” It is difficult to predict what motivates people since it is so personalized. An emotional trigger is a powerful motivator. Don’t underestimate the trouble and the wandering that can cause.
Wandering is a scary thing for both the caregiver and the person with dementia. More than 60 percent of those with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia will wander, and if a person is not found within 24 hours, up to half of individuals who wander will suffer serious injury or death. This is truly a situation where an ounce of prevention is a worthwhile thing.