Alzheimer’s wandering is dangerous. Getting lost or accidentally wandering away is a serious issue for people with Alzheimer’s or dementia and a major worry for caregivers. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 6 out of 10 people with dementia will wander. It can happen at any point in the disease, even if they’ve never done it before. It might seem unbelievable that seniors who are frail, slow-moving, or use a walker could get very far without anyone noticing. But it really does happen! The scary thing is that some older adults who wander away are never found and some pass away due to accidents or exposure. That’s why it’s so important to keep your older adult safe and do your best to prevent them from wandering.
We share 8 ways to reduce wandering behavior and keep seniors safe even if they do wander.
What causes Alzheimer’s wandering?
There are many reasons why someone with Alzheimer’s might wander, including:
Fear or stress – they might not recognize where they are, the environment is overstimulating, or a loud noise or confusing situation could upset them
Basic needs – they might be looking for food, a bathroom, or just want to get some fresh air
Searching – they might get lost while looking for someone or something
Boredom – they could be looking for something to do
Old routines – they might be trying to go to work, do chores, or run errands like they used to
8 ways to prevent Alzheimer’s wandering
1. Install door and window alarms and locks
Making it difficult for someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia to get outside the house is essential to preventing wandering.
Simple home safety modifications can make it tough for them to open doors to the outside, including:
Adding childproof door knob covers (like these) make it more difficult to open doors
Installing an additional lock higher up on the door so they’re out of your older adult’s line of sight because people with dementia often don’t look above eye level – try this for regular doors and this for sliding patio doors
Installing door and window alarms (like these) to alert you if they’re opened
Using pressure-sensitive alarm mats (like this) next to their bed to alert you if they get up at night
Using an alarm like SafeWander that’s triggered when a specific threshold is crossed
Important: Be aware of fire safety needs for everyone in the house. Make sure all locks are easily accessible to people without cognitive impairment. Doors should be able to be opened quickly in case of emergency.
2. Camouflage doors that lead outside
Another way to discourage your older adult from opening doors that lead outside is to camouflage them. Often, people with dementia won’t be able to find the door if you cover it up or won’t open it if you place large signs on it. For example you could install a curtain rod above the door to hang a dark curtain or wall hanging over the door. Slide the curtain open and close as needed, taking care to not let your older adult see you do it. You could also place large signs saying “DO NOT ENTER” or “STOP” on the door. Many people with dementia won’t open a door with those types of signs.
Another effective technique is to put a large black doormat in front of the door. Seniors with dementia often think that dark areas of the floor are holes and won’t walk over them. This will discourage them from actually reaching the door.
3. Clearly mark interior doors
When they’re trying the doors leading outside, your older adult could actually be looking for an interior room, like the bathroom, kitchen, or their bedroom. Make these key rooms easier for them to find by adding large signs or pictures on these doors or leaving the bathroom light on at night.
4. Find and solve triggers for wandering behavior
Another thing to do is to identify the causes for your older adult’s wandering behavior. Make notes of when it’s happening and what they were doing or saying just before. Over time, you may discover a pattern, like they wander around the same time every day, when they’re bored, looking for the bathroom, or hungry. If wandering is caused by boredom or a physical need, find meaningful activities to keep them engaged and make sure to encourage a toilet visit or get them a snack or beverage before that time of day. Some people may be trying to return to an old routine, like going to the office in the morning or picking up a child from school in the afternoon.
To reduce this need, tell reassuring fibs. You could say that it’s a federal holiday and the office isn’t open today. Or mention that their child has a playdate at a friend’s house and the friend’s mom promised to drop them off later. Then, distract your older adult with a favorite activity or snack to take their mind off of their old routine.
Other seniors are looking for a person or object and wander because they’re searching. Think creatively to reassure them that everything is ok. You could say that the lost item is being repaired or in a safe place with a trusted friend. Or you might say that the person they’re looking for called to say they were delayed, but would be there in the afternoon or the next day. Encouraging them to tell you about the person or object often calms them down, distracts, and reduces the urge to search.
5. Enroll them in a safe return program
In case they do get out of the house, make it easier to find your lost older adult by enrolling them in a program like the Alzheimer’s Association’s MedicAlert Safe Return.
Once enrolled, your older adult will get a wearable ID that allows people and law enforcement to identify a found senior and contact you. You can also call a 24/7 toll-free support line if you need to report your older adult missing. You may also want to contact local law enforcement agencies to ask if they offer Silver Alert or similar programs that help caregivers locate missing older adults.
6. Have them wear a GPS device at all times
You might feel safer if your older adult wears a GPS tracking device at all times. A wearable GPS device like a wristband sends out tracking signals that can be followed by rescue personnel.
Some local law enforcement agencies offer locator services like SafetyNet or Project Lifesaver. If your older adult won’t tolerate a wearable tracker, consider the SmartSole. It’s a GPS tracker that’s hidden in shoe insoles.
7. Hide keys, purses, wallets
If car keys are accessible, seniors could drive off before you return from a quick bathroom break. To prevent this from happening, make sure all car keys are well-hidden and consider adding a steering wheel lock to the car.
Another precaution is to hide their purse or wallet. Some people won’t leave the house without those essentials.
8. Be prepared
Other ways to prepare just in case your older adult wanders and gets lost are to:
Snap a quick photo of them each morning. You’ll always have an up-to-date photo with the clothes they’re wearing that day in case you need to show it to law enforcement and rescue personnel.
Alert neighbors to their wandering behavior and share tips on how to distract or slow them down. Make sure all neighbors have your contact information.
Sew or iron-on ID labels with contact information into all their clothes.