Will you be the one to aid a person with dementia who’s lost?

Wandering behavior is typical but risky for those with Alzheimer's disease

Ray Burow avatar

by Ray Burow |

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One early morning there was a knock at my sister’s door. My mother was on the other side. There Mom stood, not alone, but with a neighbor.

An elderly woman like my mother walking for exercise wasn’t unusual in my sister’s neighborhood, but Mom, who split her time between her daughters’ homes, had dementia. She was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and it was her first time on a walkabout.

Stage within a stage

Wandering most often happens in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s. Caregivers consider it a pejorative term because we typically don’t like labeling people by symptomatic behaviors that can’t be controlled. However, “wandering” is the medical term for the behavior during this stage of dementia.

Actually, wandering behavior can occur at any stage of the disease. Out of 10 people diagnosed, in fact, six will wander once, and many will wander over and over again. My mother’s walkabout was short-lived, thankfully interrupted by a savvy neighbor. She knew my mother and sister, put two and two together, and interrupted Mom’s walk to bring her home.

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Intentional wandering

The term “wander” suggests that people are oblivious to what they’re doing. Not necessarily.

With her shoes on, Mom walked quickly by rows of town homes and outside the neighborhood’s confines. Realistically, it didn’t make a lick of sense, but it did in her mind: My mother was well aware of her destination and purpose. She was back to being a caregiver and was walking home, 1,000 miles away, to look after her parents. She didn’t remember they’d passed away.

Alzheimer’s had stripped away her concept of time and space. She was willing to walk.

Dangerous journey

Wandering outside the confines of a safe environment is more dangerous for a person with dementia.

Recently, a Florida man with dementia walked away from an assisted-living facility. The local authorities and news media reported him missing and asked the public to keep an eye out for him. Sadly, he never returned home, and his body was found a day later.

Like my mother, this dear man might have walked away with purpose and possibly had a plan of where he was going and how he’d get there. Often a person with dementia gets lost because they can’t maintain the stamina to walk, and they forget where they’re going and how to get there.

We took measures to protect our mother and keep her from walking away unattended, but it can happen in the blink of an eye. On many occasions, like the one I recounted above, she was on a mission to get home and care for her parents.

Once I was taking a rare nap on a weekend afternoon. My very young son knew the drill and awakened me. “Mommy, Granny told me to tell you she’ll be back and that she’s going to West Virginia.” I was able to stop her then.

Once, I asked my mother if she knew the way to West Virginia and if she thought she could really walk there. She motioned toward the street in front of our home and said, “I’ll just go down here a little ways and then walk up the mountain.” She said it with such conviction. She’d turn the corner and find herself at the foot of the mountain on a blacktop driveway leading to my childhood home. Seemingly, that’s what she thought.

I could imagine her desperation when at the end of our street, turning the corner, there was no mountain. She wouldn’t remember how to return to the starting point. That was scary.

She spoke of such trips a lot, but only wandered away that one time. We added door alarms that sounded when opened and never left her unattended when out and about. We couldn’t chance her getting lost.

Be the one

My sister and I have each crossed paths with elderly strangers who had dementia and were lost. We stayed with them (so they couldn’t become any more lost than they already were), and we contacted the authorities.

I believe God was preparing us for caregiving and also provided an opportunity to calm the worry of a caregiver we’d never meet. We didn’t know the weight of it until the morning of our mom’s walkabout, and a neighbor showed up for her and us.

In a similar circumstance, will you choose to be the one? Someone’s loved one might need you.

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, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to Alzheimer’s disease.


Steve silkwood avatar

Steve silkwood

Could this site please cover what accurate personal tracking devices for wanderers are available, particularly passive wearable types detectable by a carers cellphone ?


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