Alzheimer’s disease is the most widespread type of dementia. It is ranked as the sixth leading cause of death in the United States (1).
Dementia in elderly people results from the damage and death of neurons in the brain.
It is characterized by a progressive decline in memory and other cognitive abilities of the person. The capacity to perform even basic bodily functions may get impaired.
Alzheimer’s can cause confusion and disorientation.
Wandering and getting lost is a common behavior among those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
Wandering is a Serious Risk
Even if your loved one has never wandered in the past, there is an ever-present risk as this can occur at any stage of Alzheimer’s.
The Alzheimer’s Association warns that six in every ten people with dementia exhibit wandering tendencies.
According to their statistics, up to half of those who wander off will suffer serious injury or death, if not found within 24 hours (2).
The danger of wandering is also connected to many other conditions such as autism and Down syndrome. The anxiety for caregivers in such circumstances can become overwhelming.
What precautions can you take to curb or prevent wandering? How do you ensure a safe return if your loved one is missing?
Underlying Causes of Wandering Triggers: Confusing Compulsions
The first step is to identify when and why the wandering occurs. This varies from individual to individual.
Confusion and compulsion seem to be two significant reasons for the various triggers.
Alzheimer’s sufferers may often get lost in their own homes or nursing community.
Their confusion and disorientation make even well-known surroundings seem unfamiliar and threatening.
This bewilderment may become more evident in the evenings due to Sundowner’s syndrome (3).
Compulsions are repetitive behaviors that a person with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder [OCD] feels the urge to do, in response to an obsessive thought (4).
Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia often create compulsions to just go to “a place.” Where or what this “place” is, may not be clear to the patient, but the urge can feel strong and almost irresistible.
One such compulsion is ‘Going Home.’
Maybe it’s a longing for their childhood home or another dwelling where they spent memorable days. Some people with Alzheimer’s disease take drastic measures to get to where they think they belong.
People with this type of wandering tendencies are said to be an “elopement risk” as they are stubbornly determined to leave wherever it is they happen to be, to get to this real or illusionary place of comfort.
In such a circumstance, refrain from correcting the person concerning the illusion. It is more important to reassure the person when he feels disoriented.
Validation may actually be more effective. For instance, “I am with you and we are safe here. We will go home after you take a nap.”
6 Common Alzheimer’s Wandering Triggers
1. Basic needs:
They may be hungry and go in search of food. They wander and get lost trying to find the bathroom.
They are simply going around looking for something to do. Have a routine for daily activities as this can provide a structure to their day. Activities and exercise can decrease apprehension, agitation, and restlessness.
They may wander looking for someone or something. If they are searching for a spouse or daughter, caregivers can post signs indicating when that person will be visiting.
It is most important to provide reassurance repeatedly as this will help reduce the associated wandering.
Unfamiliar surroundings, loud noises, and a situation beyond their comprehension may simply scare them away.
Caregivers should avoid taking them to busy and crowded places that may cause disorientation, like malls or supermarkets.
Stressful or overstimulating settings may cause them to walk away.
You must make the effort to reassure them if they feel lost, unwanted, or disoriented.
6. Reverting to old habits:
They may insist on going to the office forgetting they no longer work there.
Caregivers can try using redirection techniques or healthy distractions when their loved ones get stuck in a compulsive state of mind.
Once you understand what causes your loved ones to wander, you can take the necessary precautions to eliminate these triggers.
Make the effort to learn more about creating a safe and secure environment for those with autism, Alzheimer’s, or other similar medical conditions that may cause them to go wandering.
Have a strategy planned to immediately put into action if they do wander off. Make sure your loved one is wearing a tracking device at all times. Knowing you can easily track them anytime will ease caregiver stress levels.