What you need to know about wandering and dementia

Many states use the Silver Alert program to track missing older adults

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by Ray Burow |

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If you have a loved one who’s been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, what’s the chance that they’ll walk away from the safety of their home? According to the Alzheimer’s Association, anyone with dementia is at risk of wandering.

There’s some controversy about the word “wandering” as it relates to people with dementia. Labeling someone in a nursing facility, for instance, as a “wanderer” is pejorative and an affront to their dignity. At the same time, it’s important to understand that six out of 10 people diagnosed with dementia will wander at least once, though the activity doesn’t define who they are.

People with dementia wander for various reasons. We can’t always pinpoint why, but their wandering is usually purposeful. My mother wandered because, with her cognitive constraints, she believed she could walk home to West Virginia from Florida. Considering her purpose, she wasn’t technically wandering because she knew exactly where she thought her plans would lead. Without the cognitive ability to determine time and space, she was determined to walk home, and she was on her way.

My mother left the house and walked away at least once. Other times she was interrupted when one of us caught on to her plan and intervened. It was a must that we protect her from getting lost or perhaps worse.

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An alert by another name is still helpful

In the United States, programs called Silver Alert and others doing a similar service have been adopted by 37 states and the District of Columbia to help bring people home safely when they wander away. Silver Alert was first introduced in Oklahoma, when Fred Perry, then a state representative, modeled the Silver Alert program after the Amber Alert system for missing children.

Some states include other people with mental or physical disorders, but a Silver Alert is primarily issued for a missing person who’s over 65. A waiting period isn’t typically required before reporting someone missing to authorities, which is important because a wanderer with dementia can sustain a severe injury within the first 24 hours. Thankfully, our family didn’t have to enact a Silver Alert for my mother, but Florida does have the system in place.

If your state doesn’t have an alert system, however, you should still inform authorities if your loved one with dementia goes missing. If you’re traveling with someone who has Alzheimer’s disease, it’s advisable to research beforehand if the destination uses a Silver Alert or similar reporting system.

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.


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