People with dementia often feel the need to walk about – even though they do not know where they are going and may have no purpose in their walk. They simply feel the need to walk. Researchers have given this type of behaviour the name ‘Dementia wandering’.
How common is dementia wandering?
According to the Practical Neurology website, wandering is common in people with Dementia-
‘Wandering is a complex behavioural phenomenon that is frequent in dementia. Approximately twenty percent of community-dwelling individuals with dementia and sixty percent of those living in institutionalized settings are reported to wander. Most definitions of wandering incorporate a variety of dementia-related locomotion activities, including elopement (i.e., attempts to escape), repetitive pacing, and becoming lost’.
The article continues with a stark fact. It explains that the terms ‘critical wandering’ and ‘missing incidents’ are being used to describe when a person with Dementia wanders and becomes lost.
The main concern this brings is that the mortality rate in these situations is 20% – which makes dementia wandering the most dangerous problem linked with this disease.
What are the causes of dementia wandering?
Whilst research continues to establish the reasons and wandering patterns occurring in people with Dementia, some scientists believe that they are searching for something they once treasured or trying to get back to a moment in time when they were particularly happy – such as a favourite holiday destination or job.
Other scientists believe that dementia wandering patients do so because they are feeling agitated and restless.
On its website, The Alzheimer’s Association explains –
‘Alzheimer’s disease causes people to lose their ability to recognize familiar faces and places. It’s common for people living with dementia to wander or become lost or confused about their location, and it can occur at any stage of the disease. Six in ten people living with dementia will wander at least once; many do so repeatedly. Although common, wandering can be dangerous — even life-threatening — and the stress of this risk weighs heavily on caregivers and family’.
If your loved one is inclined to wander, it is important to know the reasons that may trigger their need to do so-
Common reasons people with dementia wander:
- They have not retained the fact that you asked them to stay in the house or car.
- They are feeling agitated and unsettled.
- The wandering has been prompted by a change in routine.
- It could have been triggered by something they overheard.
- They are searching for a favourite place or time from the past.
You may be able to pick up on some subtle signs that your loved one could start wandering. In conversation, they may express to you the need for them to go somewhere – like to work or shopping.
It could be that they no longer recognise their surroundings, even if it is the home that you have shared for many years. Sometimes a person with Dementia can wander because they get confused and disoriented.
They may be searching for a certain place such as the bathroom and not find it. You may well find that you have to regularly remind them where different rooms are – picture signs pinned on the door can help.
You may discover that when they are feeling restless or agitated they may not simply be able to keep still.
Devices to assist caregivers with loved ones who wander
What can be done to prevent your loved one wandering?
There are a number of practical things that should be put in place to ensure that it is difficult for your loved one to wander.
These are important to initiate because of the serious risk that they could fall and injury themselves on one of their ‘walkabouts’.
The most important thing you can do is to create a safe and secure environment for them. You will need to install locks on all doors leading outside and windows. Locks using a security number are best.
Make sure you have somewhere safe to keep your house and car keys. Your loved one may forget that they no longer drive.
Child proof catches can prove useful on bathroom cabinets and drawers containing medication and sharp kitchen utensils.
It is sensible to make sure that furniture in your home is easy to navigate and that there is plenty of lighting – including at night if your loved one tries to reach the bathroom.
It is practical to ensure that your loved one has enough to eat and drink during the day. This is so that you can take the practical step of offering them their last drink about two hours before bedtime. This will reduce their need to get up at night to use the bathroom.
Can restless behaviour be managed?
It is quite a challenge to keep your loved one engaged throughout the day and certainly requires plenty of good planning. However, keeping them occupied will help them to feel calmer and less agitated.
Avoid busy places such as shopping malls where they may well quickly feel disorientated. If they are in new surroundings, do not leave them on their own
Ensuring that your love one gets adequate sleep can also really help. A good way to help this is by getting daily exercise together.
If the weather is good, nothing is better than enjoying a walk in the countryside. If your loved one has an interest in swimming or gardening these are ideal pastimes too and will help tire your loved one.
For the final hour before bed, sitting together listening to music as this will help prepare your loved one for bed.
Make sure that the lighting in your lounge is not too bright. Being soft and mellow will send the signal that bedtime is approaching.
If you find that your loved one seems more confused than normal or is restless and agitated, it is well worth having a word with their doctor.
What to do in case of emergency
Keep a list with the telephone number for the Police and family and friends who live by on the wall by the telephone. Think through an emergency plan – should the worse happen – and discuss with key friends and neighbours.
Ask them to always contact you should they see your loved one out and about on their own.
Compile a list of the likely places that your loved one could try to find. Such places as favourite places/restaurants, your old home, where they used to work etc.
Make sure you have a recent photograph of your loved one that you can show Police officers.
If your loved one has wandered and you cannot speedily locate them within 10-15 minutes, contact the local Police. Tell them that your loved one has Dementia.
Contact your key neighbours and friends and get them to help you search the locality. It is interesting to note that the direction that your loved one probably wandered is the same as their dominant hand.
Check the local vicinity really well as most wanderers are found within two kilometres/ one mile of home.
Closing Thoughts – dementia wandering
As cognitive decline increases, it may become unsafe for your loved one with dementia to live at home — especially if they are at risk of wandering.
Although dementia wandering is one of the most dangerous behaviors that people with memory loss will face, there are ways to prevent or manage the risk.
Our aim is to educate and inform caregivers in order to help you remain confidence in the face of this challenging disease.