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Walking with Purpose – Why do People with Dementia Wander?

Many people with dementia are prone to wandering which can be stressful for [caregivers] and loved ones. Find out why it might be happening...

One minute they’re standing next to you in a shop, the next they’ve disappeared halfway down the road – and you’re racing around trying to find them. Wandering can be hugely stressful if you’re caring for a loved one, but it’s actually quite a common issue for people affected by dementia.

In many cases, although it may appear to people that the person is simply ‘wandering’ around aimlessly, they’re often trying to get somewhere for a specific reason – walking with purpose – it’s just that the reason doesn’t quite appear to tie in with where they should be at that current time.

While this can be a challenging symptom of dementia, if you can recognize and understand the reasons behind why someone might keep walking off or disappearing, you may be able to prevent it from happening.

Why are they wandering?

  • Continuing with a habit or routine: They say old habits die hard, so if the person with dementia had a very specific routine or habit that they used to follow, they may want to carry on with this, even if it’s something that isn’t appropriate. So they may start trying to go shopping or go to their old office, because in their mind, that’s what they always did at that particular time and they think they should be there.

  • Boredom: Someone who is lacking in stimulation may simply decide that they’ll go looking for something to do, which means they could wander off, or simply fancy going for a walk to provide a sense of purpose.

  • Restlessness or a need to burn up energy: If the person with dementia used to have a very busy or active life, and is suddenly stuck at home, or with a limited social life, they may simply have the urge to get out and about.

  • Confused: Ever find yourself walking into a room and then not remembering why you were in that room? This can happen a lot when you have dementia, so the person you’re caring for may be trying to ‘retrace’ their steps until they remember what it was they were doing. Likewise, if they don’t remember an area, they may wander off until they can start identifying something familiar like a landmark. Or, they may be stuck in a memory lapse from their past, and be keen to return to a familiar spot – such as a previous house they lived in – as they recognize it.

  • Looking for something or someone: Wandering may occur because they’ve suddenly decided they need to find an old friend they haven’t seen for a long time or they’re wondering where they parked the car (despite not driving for three years).

  • Trying to get away from something: If the situation or place they’re currently in is painful, stressful or unpleasant in any way, they may simply walk off to get away from it all. Likewise, if the environment is very noisy, they might walk off to find somewhere more quiet and peaceful – and who can blame them?!

  • Night wandering: Be aware that wandering can happen at any time, including the middle of the night. If someone with dementia gets easily confused with what time of day it is, you may find they start wandering at 2am in the morning because they decide they have to be somewhere and don’t understand that they’re supposed to be asleep.

Strategies to help you deal with wandering

Here’s what to do:

  • Work out why it’s happening: Are they feeling restless? Do you need to help them fight boredom? Is there a pattern to their restlessness? For example, could it be the time of day? Sundowning can increase restlessness and agitation. Is there a more obvious reason? For example, perhaps they’re trying to find a loo or they’re hungry and want to buy something to eat?

  • Talk calmly: Keep reminding them where they are and why they’re here. If they’re worried about something in particular, reassure them as much as you can. For ideas about dealing with awkward questions go here.

  • Keep busy: A bit of physical activity, or a favorite hobby to make them feel connected and engaged might be all that’s needed to reduce your loved one’s desire to wander. Besides, if they’ve had a stimulating, active day, they’re more likely to enjoy returning home, than if they’ve been stuck inside all day.

  • Develop a good bedtime routine: Dementia can cause sleep disturbance. If the person you’re caring for doesn’t seem to be getting enough sleep, they could be feeling even more restless and disorientated. Improving their sleep routine can reduce insomnia and may also help prevent night-time wandering.

  • Take a trip down memory lane: If their desire to wander seems to have been triggered by something from the past, it might help to sit down and talk about the memory together. For example, many people with dementia say ‘I want to go home’ when they really mean somewhere they used to live a long time ago. Looking at photos and recalling happy memories may reduce their need to ‘go home.’

If none of this works consider these practical tips:

  • Removing triggers: Keep coats, umbrellas, walking shoes, bags, purses door and car keys out of sight.

  • Camouflage the front door: Cover it with a curtain or paint it the same color as the surrounding wall. You could also put a dark rug in front of it – to someone with dementia, this may look like a hole in the floor so they won’t try to cross it. Try putting a sign above the door saying ‘Stop,’ or ‘Do not Enter.’

  • Secure doors and windows: If you are at home but can’t be watching them constantly, make sure window locks are fastened and doors are secured. You could also consider an alarm or monitor which would alert you if they do still decide to go out.

If they are absolutely determined to go out, you can’t always stop them. Instead, try to make sure:

  • They always carry identification: Even if you have to sew a name tag and phone number into their clothes.

  • Neighbors and people living nearby have been warned: And that they know to call you if they see your loved one walking on their own.

  • Consider a tracking device*: There are lots to choose from and it could save you a lot of stress and heartache.

If all else fails…

  • Could you go with them?: It may be inconvenient but sometimes accompanying them on a trip out is the simplest way to ensure they stay safe and don’t get lost. You may find that they’re ready to come home within about 15 minutes…and you could spend a lot longer trying to persuade them not to go out.

  • Be prepared for the worst: If they do get lost, make sure you have phone numbers to hand for people who need to know what’s happened – from neighbors and relatives to emergency services or community police. Try adding them to your mobile contacts and have a recent photo of the person with dementia and a list of places they may have gone ready.

  • Try not to worry: Around 60 per cent of people with dementia are prone to wandering, but the vast majority of them remain safe.

*Memory Matters has available a limited number of Tile bluetooth trackers for purchase. Tiles make it easy to find everything that matters… Call for more information: 435-319-0407.

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