How to Prevent Dementia Patients from Wandering
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When it comes to our family and friends, we all want the best for our loved ones. But when health declines, it isn’t always as easy to keep those close to us safe. Dementia can be a devastating condition at the best of times without the worry of a loved one wandering off and getting lost. However, as many as six out of every ten people living with dementia will wander at least once.
For those caring for a loved one with dementia, the person becoming lost can be a very real concern. But there are some things you can do to limit the possibility and keep your loved one safe.
Why Do People Wander?
There are a lot of reasons that people with dementia may wander, and it’s important to understand these. If you have a loved one that wanders frequently, this can be distressing and frustrating but understanding why can take away some of those emotions.
Reliving Their Past
Your loved one wandering isn’t for no reason. In fact, some people with dementia will wander out of routine. If there is something they have done every day for their entire lives, such as going a particular route to work or a friend’s house, they may follow this route again out of habit. Moreover, some dementia patients may go in search of people they knew in the past and become lost as a result.
For somebody with dementia, it can be easy to become confused and disoriented. This is especially true if the person has moved to a new location and is unfamiliar with their surroundings. They may go in search of somewhere familiar such as an old home or that of a family member where they feel comforted. However, it is unlikely that they would find this and would more than likely become lost in the process.
If your loved one doesn’t have much stimulation within their home then they will quickly become bored. Just because someone has a condition like dementia, that doesn’t mean that they won’t experience this feeling, and they will attempt to do something about it. In this case, a dementia patient may wander off in search of something to entertain them.
Searching for Something
It is also possible that your loved one is simply trying to satisfy their basic needs. For example, they may go looking for a bathroom or something to eat and become distracted, heading outside in the process. It’s important to remember that, even in a seemingly familiar environment, a person with dementia may have problems with visual and spatial awareness, which could lead to them becoming lost.
Agitation or Discomfort
People with dementia may experience stress or fear in certain situations. This could include crowded locations or being somewhere they don’t recognize. In this instance, the fight or flight response takes over and the person wanders away to remove the stress of the situation.
Many dementia patients will suffer from sundowning. This is not a condition in its own right but rather a collection of symptoms such as fatigue, hunger, thirst, low lighting, being in an unfamiliar place, boredom, depression, and several others that are known to come on during the late afternoon and evening. When this happens, it can cause the person to wander.
Moreover, if the person is in any way agitated or uncomfortable due to things like pain, temperature, noise, or medication effects, they may wander to try to escape these things.
What Stage of Dementia Does Wandering Occur?
When a loved one receives a dementia diagnosis, this can be understandably frightening, concerning, and upsetting. One of the main things that caregivers worry about is what to expect and when.
In terms of wandering, this may appear as early as stage three, when people may find themselves becoming lost more easily. This stage can last between two and seven years, and after this, the person may decline in more severe ways, such as being unable to travel to places without a caregiver.
How to Help Keep Loved Ones Safe from Wandering
Even if your loved one is in the very early stages of dementia, it is critical that you make preparations well in advance to prevent wandering and keep the person safe. There are lots of things you can do; the following will reduce the risk of wandering and put your mind at ease.
1. Use Anti-Wandering Alarms
There are a few different types of anti-wandering alarms that you can use for a dementia patient that are easy to use and give caregivers some much needed reassurance. For those struggling with more severe symptoms, it can be useful to use more than one type of alarm.
Bed Occupancy Sensors
A bed occupancy sensor is a pad that can be placed either above or below the mattress and is pressure activated. When the occupant leaves the bed and pressure is taken off the pad, this activates the alarm.
Not only are these great for people who are prone to wandering, but they can also be useful if the person is likely to fall out of bed. However, you should be aware that, when the user changes position in bed, this could result in the alarm being activated.
Floor Sensor Mats
Floor sensor mats are placed on the floor next to a bed so that when the person steps out of bed, the change in pressure will set off the alarm. They can also be used next to the chair and aren’t as restrictive to the patient as some other devices. That said, you should make sure that the patient is heavy enough to activate the alarm.
Chair Occupancy Sensors
Chair occupancy sensors can be used in the same way as a bed occupancy sensor in that they are placed onto the chair and will activate when there is a reduction in pressure. These sensors can also be used with wheelchairs, and there are two different types, one of which is designed for incontinent users. Just like bed sensors, these alarms can go off when the user moves around in the chair, which can be especially problematic for people who self-propel as they will naturally shift as they move.
2. Install Door & Window Motion Detector Devices
There are several types of sensor that you can put on a door or window and when this is opened or movement is detected, an alarm will sound. They don’t only have to be placed on doors that lead to the outside but can also be useful for things like bathroom doors which can let you know if your loved one needs help while in the bathroom.
Many door alarms are simple to use and feature two magnetic pieces. One is placed on either side of the door, and the alarm is activated when the magnets are no longer in contact.
These types of alarms are also ideal for promoting better safety within the home in terms of intruders. Primarily, they will serve as a deterrent but should someone attempt to get in, the alarm will alert you to any unauthorized access.
3. Install a Smart Camera
Not every alarm that goes off will be the result of an emergency since the sensors can often be tripped for other reasons. If you want to limit the number of times you respond to a false alarm, then using a smart camera can help with this, as you’ll be able to see what your loved one is doing.
Some cameras come with audio communication, which better allows you to check in on your loved one in the event an alarm is triggered. Many cameras will also send notifications via an app to caregivers when motion is detected, so you’re still kept in the loop.
However, you should be mindful of the fact that a lot of older adults may feel as though this is an invasion of their privacy. For this reason, it is essential to obtain the permission of your loved one before installing any cameras.
4. Use Wearable GPS Enabled Tracking Devices
Even with a variety of security alarms in place, it is still possible that your loved one may wander. In this case, a GPS tracking device can be indispensable. These can be worn as a neck pendant or a bracelet and can be linked up with a smartphone app on the caregiver’s end. In the event that the dementia patient becomes lost, caregivers can obtain an exact location to go and rescue their loved one.
Apple has released Air Tags which can be attached to a person or object and will link up with your smartphone. There’s no need for the person to have their own smartphone as the Air Tag will detect their location and send it back to you.
5. Hide Shoes, Car Keys, Coats Away from the Front Door
It is easier for a person to leave their home when their essential items are close by. This might include things like coats, hats, a purse, car keys and other items. If these are left by the front door, it could encourage the dementia patient to leave the home. Moving these things away from the door and putting them out of sight can act as a mild deterrent.
6. Place Signs on Doors to Discourage Leaving
It is a good idea to draw attention away from the doors in the home that lead outside. You can do this by camouflaging them using things like curtains or a poster. Some caregivers even opt to paint the door in the same color as the wall to minimize its appearance. Placing a mirror on a door can also be a good way to disguise it.
Another great way to discourage a person from leaving the home is to place signs on the door. These might include things like ‘STOP’ or ‘DO NOT ENTER’ signs. Even though the person may be suffering with cognitive difficulties, a STOP sign is typically something that is ingrained in the memory, so the person would likely still follow the order.
7. Help Keep Them Active
Sadly a lot of people with dementia find themselves extremely bored, especially if they live on their own and don’t have many visitors. This can also lead to loneliness which could result in the person wandering to try and find some stimulation.
For this reason, it is essential for caregivers to keep their loved ones active and lead as engaging life as possible. Spending frequent time with your loved one doing things like card or board games, watching a movie, gardening, baking, and many other things will ensure that their mind is occupied and kept away from the idea of wandering.
Earlier, we talked about sundowning, and this can be exacerbated if the person is sleeping too much during the day. Where possible, try to limit naps and keep the person active by going on walks with them so that they are tired at bedtime. This will improve sleep quality, which can result in fewer mental health problems like anxiety.
8. Let Neighbors Know About Your Loved One
While you may be responsible for the bulk of your loved one’s care, it can be useful to enlist the help of a neighbor. Even if they simply call you in the event that they notice your loved one wandering, this can take a lot of pressure off you. There may be several neighbors that are willing to keep an eye out for your loved one. Some of them might even be willing to go outside and help them but if this is the case, be sure to make prior introductions to avoid unnecessary stress for the dementia sufferer.
9. Keep a Regular Routine
Making sure that your loved one has a solid routine will keep them active, busy, and engaged. This will also provide them with the peace of mind that they will have everything they need each day, for example, food, medication, bathing, etc.
10. Ensure Doors are Locked at Night
By simply locking the doors at night, this provides a deterrent for wandering, especially if the keys are well hidden. It can also help to install the locks out of the person’s line of sight. However, you should be incredibly careful to ensure that they do have a way out in the event of an emergency.
Smart locks are fantastic for this purpose as they can be operated remotely. Caregivers will have full control over the locks using a code, and some smart locks can be controlled using the compatible app. These are great because they can be programmed to lock and unlock at specific times of day and prevent unauthorized access to the home.
11. Ensure Their Basic Needs are Met
Many older adults with dementia will wander when they are in search of things to meet their basic needs. By ensuring that they have everything they need, this risk is largely removed. For example, you might leave a glass or bottle of water next to the bed in case the person gets thirsty at night. You might also consider using a bedside commode to remove the need for toilet trips in the night.
You should also make sure that the person is well-fed and receives adequate nutrition each day. Some people will wake in the night for other reasons only to realize that they are hungry and so will wander in search of a snack. To prevent this, it can be helpful to supply a light snack before bed.
When leaving the person alone during the day, you should make sure that they have everything they need to hand, so they do not need to wander to find it. This might include the TV remote, a current book they’re reading, their glasses, or anything else. At night, it can be helpful to install a night-time light and remove clutter so that, if the person does get out of bed, the risk of injury is limited.
12. Get Them to Wear an ID Bracelet
In the event that your loved one does wander, allowing other people to identify them can make getting them home safely much easier and faster. An ID bracelet provides others with details such as who the person is and a full health profile. The bracelet can also alert loved ones to an incident allowing them to reconnect much more quickly.
A great example of this is the Alzheimer’s Association medicAlert program. If your loved one goes missing, you can use the program to alert the EMS, police and other local authorities, allowing them to search. Moreover, should anyone find your loved one, they can also use the MedicAid to alert the family and this is a 24/7 service.
This service does come with a membership fee, but it’s often worth considering for the peace of mind that you and your family will get.
13. Review the Person’s Medication
Medication can come with all sorts of side effects including things like delusions, confusion and anxiety; all of which can cause a dementia patient to wander. If this is a concern for you, then it’s important to speak to your loved one’s doctor, who may be able to find an alternative medication that doesn’t come with such severe side effects. Keep in mind that you should never stop medication without consulting a doctor first.
14. Assess Whether They Are Still Safe to Drive
Some people with dementia may no longer be able to safely drive and this is something that should be continuously assessed for their own safety and that of other road users. It isn’t only about whether they are physically able to drive but whether they can safely navigate the roads.
But taking away someone’s right to drive can be very upsetting for the person, and they may simply drive anyway when they think nobody is watching. While it can be difficult, this may mean hiding the car keys, so they are unable to use the vehicle.
However, if the person is still able to drive safely, it can be a good idea to install a GPS tracker which will allow you to locate them should they get lost.
What to do When a Person with Dementia Goes Missing?
When your loved one with dementia goes missing, it is an understandably worrying time. However, it is important to remain calm and take a focused approach to locating them.
Act quickly and start by checking the local area, including any places that your loved one likes to frequent. It can also be useful to check if they have taken any items with them, such as car keys, luggage or essentials. If you notice that credit or debit cards are missing, it can be useful to contact the provider to find out where the cards have been used.
You should alert the emergency services as soon as possible, providing police with places to check, where and when your loved one was last seen, and details about their health. There is a Silver Alert system used by authorities when an older adult goes missing. While criteria for this alert may vary by state, it is usually for seniors, those with disabilities or cognitive impairments, especially dementia.
Get as many people involved in the search as possible, including neighbors, friends, and family. However, do make sure that at least one person remains at the home in case the patient comes back.