How to Prevent Alzheimer’s Patients from Wandering

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by Ray Burow |

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Memory Health

“All that is gold does not glitter / Not all those who wander are lost / The old that is strong does not wither / Deep roots are not reached by the frost.” — J.R.R.Tolkien

Why do people with Alzheimer’s disease wander?

The tendency to wander in Alzheimer’s patients is often attributed to disorientation. However, because disorientation is a common characteristic that touches every aspect of the disease, this is an insufficient explanation.

One theory is that stress or fear is a wanderer’s driving force, but in my caregiving experience, this wasn’t the case.

As my mother’s disease progressed, her desire to get up and walk away increased. She always had a reason for wanting to leave the security of our home. She wasn’t driven by stress or fear; she was purposeful. On her way to a specific place for an explicit purpose, she was determined in her mind about how to get to where she wanted to go.

Inclination to wander

My teenage son was recently reminiscing about his grandmother and related an incident from several years ago.

“I was watching ‘Alvin and the Chipmunks‘ when Granny said, ‘Tell your mom I’ll be back in a little while. I am going home to West Virginia.’” (Quite a trek, as we live in Florida).

My son’s memory prompted me to take a closer look at the association between wandering and cognitive impairment. Granny didn’t realize that her grandson was too young to be left alone. In her full cognitive capacity, she would not have suggested that he pass on such important information. Additionally, time and space were irrelevant to her. Walking to her childhood home, in her mind, was entirely doable. The hundreds of miles that lay ahead were incomprehensible to the wanderer, who would neither wither nor lose her way.

Tips to prevent wandering

Behavior can change without warning in a person with Alzheimer’s disease. Anticipate that your loved one might start to wander and take precautions early.

Install a door alarm: Choose an alert that will trigger a loud signal. It doesn’t have to be part of an extensive security system; you can buy a do-it-yourself alarm that requires little effort to install. Place the alarm above the door or in a discreet location along the door frame. This will ensure that your loved one is unable to turn off the alarm when it is triggered. Leave the alarm switched on at all times, not just during the night.

Use a baby monitor: Respecting your loved one’s privacy is important, but keeping them safe is essential. Strike a balance by utilizing a monitor that picks up audio, not images. Set an alert to warn you if the monitor detects that a window or door has been opened.

Change the locks: Your loved one’s lack of cognitive ability can be used to your advantage when creating a safe environment. New locks, with an unfamiliar appearance, may hinder a person with dementia from escaping unnoticed. They will have to ask for help with the lock or figure it out for themselves, giving their caregiver time to intervene.

Tell neighbors: Inform trusted neighbors about your parent, child, or spouse’s cognitive challenges. Explain that the person should not be walking in the neighborhood alone at any time. Provide neighbors with your cellphone number.

Use medical ID: Invest in a MedicAlert bracelet. The service includes access to a 24-hour response team that caregivers can notify if their loved one goes missing. In addition to a MedicAlert bracelet, place government-issued identification in purses, pockets, and the car’s glove compartment. Label clothes with your name and phone number.

Hide car keys: Alzheimer’s patients, especially those in the middle to late stages of the disease, should not drive. Finding their way along common routes becomes a challenge, and they will be unable to find their way home. Keep car keys locked away.

What if they go missing?

Employing these precautions will help to prevent wandering. However, if someone for whom you provide care goes missing, contact your local law enforcement agency.

To quickly locate a missing Alzheimer’s patient, your local police department might issue a Silver Alert. The system exists in several states, including Florida and North Carolina, and involves a coordinated operation between local law enforcement and families of missing persons with dementia or cognitive impairment.


Note: Alzheimer’s News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Alzheimer’s News Today or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to Alzheimer’s Disease.


Deb Bryant avatar

Deb Bryant

In sleep deprived, depressed and at my wits end.

Ray Burow avatar

Ray Burow

Awww, Deb Bryant, I am sorry for the sadness and sheer exhaustion that you're experiencing. I assume that you're taking care of a loved one with cognitive issues. You're not alone. We've all been there. I've been there.

General George S. Patton is credited with saying, "fatigue makes cowards of us all." He wasn't wrong. One of the characteristics of fatigue is that it feeds sorrow, sapping us of the strength and will to push forward. However, there are individuals and organizations that can help, providing respite care for your loved one, which will in turn provide an opportunity for you to rest and regroup. The following link is from the National Respite Network:

It may help you to find resources in your local area for respite care.
In the meantime, don't give up. Most of us in similar situations, have found ourselves to be stronger than we think.
I wish you all the best!



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