Resources for Family Caregivers of Older Adults
Wandering Away by Seniors Can Be Deadly – Take Action for Prevention

Wandering Away by Seniors Can Be Deadly – Take Action for Prevention

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Do you worry that your senior loved one will wander away from home one day — or worse, night — and not be able to find the way home?

You are not alone. Family caregivers, especially those with seniors diagnosed with dementia, often worry that it could happen.

Our imaginations run wild with the dangers seniors would face away from our protection.

It has been estimated that as many as 60 to 70% of people diagnosed with dementia will wander at least once. Unfortunately, some may wander more than once.

Statistics on Wandering Seniors Alarming

One statistic estimates there are as many as 125,000 episodes of wandering in people with dementia each year, many of which are not being reported.

Luckily, most seniors don’t wander far before they are detected. Most of the time they are brought back by someone but often don’t get themselves back home.

They won’t admit to strangers they are lost or ask for directions back to a known place. They will continue on a path to nowhere.

According to the National Crime Information Center, wanderers who are not found within 24 hours can lead to significant injury or worse. One estimate is that of those not found within 24 hours, only 20% survive.

That means 4 out of 5 not found within 24 hours aren’t found alive!

The Alzheimer’s Association has placed that number nearer to half, which is still too many. Let’s hope it is lowering as we become aware and take action.

The good news is 94% of Alzheimer’s wanderers are found within 1.5 miles of where they were last seen.

Why Do Senior Loved Ones Wander?

There is a reason your senior loved one leaves home or a facility. Trying to understand what might trigger them will make it easier to prevent.

There are a variety of reasons stemming from mental confusion but also physical or environmental causes.

Why might seniors wander from home?

  • Looking for someone or someplace
  • Feel that they need to be somewhere else, unable to express where that might be but have a strong compulsion to get there
  • Feeling that they aren’t in the home in their memory and have to get there
  • Bored or frustrated
  • Hungry
  • Lonely
  • Pain
  • Special date or anniversary
  • Loss of loved one
  • Change in environment, low lighting, noise
  • Change in medication
  • Dehydration
  • Restlessness
  • Impaired hearing or vision

Reduce Wandering with These Tips

When you understand some of the causes especially particular to your senior loved one, you can begin to be proactive about preventing wandering. Altering their environment and anticipating their needs will help reduce the likelihood of them eloping. Here are a few suggestions for things you can do to help the situation.

  1. Keep their surroundings homelike, add family pictures and familiar objects. Offer frequent snacks especially at times they may be likely to wander. Be alert of changes in the environment or well-being of your senior for anything that could trigger an episode. Offer fluids regularly, treat pain and get regular health checkups. Keep your senior busy with meaningful activities so that they don’t become bored and look for something more interesting to do like wander. Encourage shorter daytime naps so they will sleep soundly at night.
  2. Alert neighbors to join the team to keep your senior loved one safe. If they see your senior outside, they could alert you or try to corral your senior back into the safety of home if appropriate. The first action should be to contact you and then authorities. They should be aware that redirecting seniors at some times to change course can lead to aggressive behavior. If your senior shows this behavior, neighbors should just watch where your senior travels and not try to get them back home. This could help avoid any physical harm to either of them. Perhaps you can guide others in how to talk with them to diffuse the situation if they appear agitated. It is all in the approach but people who are trying to help may not be aware of the need to talk calmly and what to say to avoid escalation of behaviors.
  3. Since seniors often wander and become ‘lost’ while on an outing, all areas will be unfamiliar and they will not be able to negotiate themselves to a place that feels safe and comfortable such as a mall or public area like a park or zoo.
  4. A real danger is water. People with dementia who are in unfamiliar surroundings often walk in a straight line until they reach an obstacle. This could mean that with decreased visual acuity or depth perception, they will walk right into a pond, lake, river or other water source and have drowned as a result.
  5. Be ready to tell officials about their clothing, things that might frighten them such as dogs, men in uniform or trucks for instance and have a photo ready to share. The more information you have to help direct a search as quickly as possible, the more effective the search will be. Keep identification on them, in a pocket or engraved bracelet with their name and address in case they become lost someone can help.
  6. If your senior loved one begins talking about their childhood home, they may be at greater risk of wandering and it is time to put precautions into place.
  7. Use sensor mats at exit points, add secure door locks at a height that is hard for seniors to reach, add a lock that you can check from your smartphone to be sure it is engaged when needed, disguise exit doors with creative designs such as bookcase wallpaper or towel racks.
  8. Use GPS tracking devices such as bracelets, special shoes or other items but be careful not to think that is the answer, other interventions should be done to prevent wandering since GPS only helps once someone has eloped. These trackers only work where there is cell phone coverage too.
  9. If your senior suffers from sundowning, they will be more likely to wander in the evening. You should take necessary precautions to prevent them from leaving the home.
  10. If your senior is at risk, they will need supervision at all times to keep them safe whether family, paid or volunteer.
  11. Keep seniors active during the day so they will be tired for bed, give them plenty of opportunity to walk each day including outside walks.
  12. Use a bracelet or ankle band that can help locate your senior loved one if they are missing. This could be especially valuable if they have wandered more than once and are crafty about circumventing your efforts to keep them safe.
  13. Contact your local authorities proactively. Let them know that your senior is at danger of wandering. Many community police forces have a form that you can fill out that gives them specifics about our senior including any disabilities. There is also a program called Nationwide Silver Alert Adoption which puts out an alert to help locate seniors. You can register your senior who might be at risk for wandering so that their information is in the system if needed and help can proceed more quickly. This is not available in every state so contact your local authorities to see if you have a program in your state.
  14. Be realistic if you can’t keep them safe at home that it could be time for a memory care unit that is equipped to prevent elopement.

A wandering senior can be scary for everyone and their safety is a key concern. Taking precautions before an episode occurs is the wisest action to prevent tragedy.

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