Occasionally in our local news we hear of an elderly person who has wandered away and is missing. It is a very scary situation for family members, caregivers and law enforcement. Wandering can be a serious risk to those who suffer from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. There are many ways in which to protect people from wandering, but deep down, it is something that is hard for us to understand. What is it that they are searching for? Wandering can be caused by disorientation, stress and reliving the past.
Alzheimer’s affects everyone differently. Up to 60% of all people with Alzheimer’s end up wandering at some point. There are many commonalities between all who are afflicted with the disease, but those who have dealt with a family member personally, it is a daily struggle as the person you know and love begins to disappear. What often happens is that old memories seem to surface. For example, instead of recognizing you, their daughter, an Alzheimer’s patient may instead see you as their sister or long lost friend from years ago. To them, memories from long ago may seem real, and a part of the present.
It is perhaps memories such as these that can trigger wandering. They may be out searching for their school, or retracing in their minds the walk home from the nearby grocery store. If they had a very regimented routine, they may be reliving the past, especially if wandering happens at the same time everyday.
Wandering can also be caused by the need to find something familiar, especially if the environment around them has changed. They could simply be hungry or thirsty, and are searching for what they need, but then become disoriented because they have forgotten what they were searching for. The stress of a new environment can also cause them to flee. Too much stimulation can cause anxiety as well, such as too much background noise or conversation. Feelings of anxiety may cause them to want to escape.
In order to keep our loved ones safe, it is important to try to discover the cues that are setting them up to wander. Provide as much activity and exercise as you can so that they do not feel restless. If you think they are looking for something familiar, provide them with a photo album of cherished memories and people. If they are wandering at the same time each day, schedule at that time some kind of activity to distract them. Make sure that the environment they are in is safe of tripping hazards, so that if they do need to move throughout the house or yard to alleviate their need to move, they can do so without causing worry. Install locks and alarms as needed to insure safety, and if need be, have your loved one wear a GPS device so that they can be located quickly, should they wander.
Though we will never fully understand what is going on in the mind of someone suffering from Alzheimer’s, we can provide an environment that is safe and provides comfort when they become unpredictable.
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