Lost and Found – Reducing the Risk of Wandering with Dementia

a senior man walking down a dirt path

Of all the symptoms associated with dementia, wandering is probably the one that elicits the most fear and anxiety in the hearts of loved ones and caregivers. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, six in ten people with dementia will wander at least once and many will do so repeatedly. What causes this symptom? Are there warning signs to alert families? What can be done to keep loved ones safe? 

While the exact cause of wandering is not fully understood, impaired cognitive function affecting executive planning and short-term memory play a leading role along with a variety of other factors. Agitation, a common symptom associated with dementia, can lead to heightened anxiety, nervousness and restlessness causing wandering. Stress, fear or overstimulation may play a role resulting in a wandering episode from an unfamiliar situation, or environment. Searching behaviors can occur as a loved one with dementia tries to reconcile their environment or frame of mind with a current reality that they do not fully understand. Boredom can also lead to fruitless wandering. Many dementia sufferers may be trying to follow previous routines that are comforting and fulfilling to them such as going to work, buying groceries, or meeting friends/spouses. Sometimes, they may wander because they are unable to communicate a basic need such as needing a restroom, feeling hungry or wanting to simply move and exercise. According to the Caring Kind, a non-profit organization that provides support and resources for those with dementia, warning signs that your loved one with dementia may be at risk for wandering include:

  • Returning from a regular activity such as a walk or drive later than usual
  • Trying unsuccessfully to fulfill former routines, such as going to work
  • Expressing the desire to “go home,” even when they are at home
  • Having restless, pacing or repetitive movements
  • Experiencing difficulty locating familiar places like the bathroom, bedroom or dining room
  • Asking the whereabouts of members or friends 
  • Appearing lost and anxious in a new or changed environment

Recognizing your loved one’s risk for wandering and acting proactively will go a long way to
enhance their safety.

Here are some tips to keep your loved in safe:

  • Limit the time they are left alone unattended 
  • Ensure that they carry ID and wear a medical bracelet 
  • Keep doors locked and add a keyed deadbolt or additional lock placed out of the normal line of view
  • Place signs that read “Stop”, “Do Not Enter” or “Closed” on the door as a visual cue to discourage them from using the door to leave
  • Use sensor technology either with a GPS phone tracker or shoe or clothing sensor to alert you on your loved one’s whereabouts
  • Place labels in garments to aid in identification
  • Keep shoes, keys, suitcases, coats, hats, and other signs of departure out of sight
  • Consider enrolling the person in a Wanderer’s Safety Program 

Important Dementia and Wandering Resources:

Caring Kind:

Alzheimer’s Association

National Institute on Health

Aging Life Care Association