Wandering is quite common amongst people living with dementia. While it is not a problem in itself (walking is great exercise with lots of mental health benefits) it can be worrying for carers and family members – especially if the person wanders to an unknown place and can’t find their way home.
Common reasons for wandering
If you are anxious about your loved one’s habit of wandering, understanding why they do it may put you at ease about their behaviour. It can also help you address any unmet needs, keep them safe, and improve their overall wellbeing.
Here are some of the common reasons people with dementia wander from home.
- Memory loss – someone may start walking towards a familiar destination, such as the shops, then forget where they were going. This can even happen in places that is known to them, as dementia impacts the brain’s ability to visually navigate an environment.
- Boredom – we all know the feeling of needing to go for a walk to burn up excess energy. Someone with dementia may not be able to communicate that they are feeling restless, and go for a wander instead.
- Being in a different environment – being in a new place, such as a new home or a day centre, can make your loved one feel disoriented. This may cause them to leave the environment and wander away to where they feel more at home.
- Following past routines – someone may wander to follow an old routine, such as catching the bus to work or picking up kids from school. They may be looking for a partner who has passed away, or a friend they had as a child.
- Being in pain – walking can be a way to relieve pain, so it’s worth investigating whether your loved one has a medical condition that needs dealing with. It could also be caused by discomfort due to excessive heat, scratchy or tight clothing, or needing to go to the toilet.
- Being unable to sleep at night – it is common for people with dementia to struggle with sleeping through night. They may wake before twilight, be confused about what time of day it is, and decide to go for a walk.
- Stress and agitation – feeling overwhelmed in a noisy or crowded area, such as a busy café, may cause someone to leave and wander away. Pacing up and down or leaving the house can also be a way of dealing with agitation and anxiety.
How to help someone who is wandering
Wandering isn’t a bad thing if it’s within a safe environment. It becomes a safety risk if your loved one is in an unknown area, there are high-risk situations (e.g. roads with heavy traffic) or during times of extreme cold or heat.
Here are some tips to help you keep your loved one safe.
Address the reason for wandering
Explore the reasons why the person may be wandering away from their home, and try to address them. If they are feeling disoriented, reassure them that they are safe. If they are bored, explore different activities they enjoy doing. It may also be a good idea to speak to their doctor and check whether they are experiencing any pain, side-effects from medication, illness or discomfort. There may also be psychological reasons that need to be addressed, such as anxiety or depression.
Keep incentives to wander out of sight.
Review their home to see if there are any cues that encourage the person to leave the house and wander. You may want to consider camouflaging doors; keeping keys, hats, shoes and coats out of sight; and putting away any items that may be a reminder for the person to leave the house. Some also find it helpful to install pressure sensitive alarms in their home that raise an alert when someone has left the house unexpectedly.
Provide safe spaces to wander.
If your loved one enjoys walking, make sure it is part of their routine and give provide them with safe spaces to walk around, such as their garden. It may also be helpful to take note of what times of day the person likes to wander, so you can plan walks or engaging activities they enjoy during those times.
Avoid correcting the person.
It can be distressing to be told that a spouse you are looking for is no longer around, or a friend you are visiting has moved away. Avoid correcting your loved one if they wander in search of something in the past. Instead, listen to them, provide reassurance and gently redirect them.
You may be in a situation where continuous supervision is needed to keep your loved one safe. Professional carers can help provide that supervision, along with individualised care for your loved one’s needs. Get in touch with the team Dementia Caring to find out how we can help.
Provide the person with identification.
Giving your loved one a form of identification to carry can ensure their safety if they happen to get lost. Dementia Australia has Identification Cards that you can use. It may also be helpful to tell friendly neighbours and local shopkeepers about your loved one. Most people are happy to help once they understand your circumstances, and can help keep an eye on the person if they happen to turn up.
Make sure you look after yourself.
It’s okay to feel overwhelmed and worried about keeping your loved one safe. Get a good support network around you, and find people you can talk about your experiences to. If you need help caring for your loved one with dementia, we are always here to help.
What to do if a person with dementia goes missing.
It is easy to panic if your loved one is missing, but the first thing to remember is to stay calm and do the following:
- Carefully search their home and outside buildings (e.g. the garage, the shed)
- Write down what the person was wearing when they went missing.
- Let your neighbours know so they can be on the look-out.
- Walk or drive around the immediate area, including any places your loved one regularly visits. If you can, make sure someone stays at home in case the person returns while you are searching.
- Get in touch with your local police and tell them your concerns. They will ask you for a description of the person and any details and favourite places they often go to. Having a recent photo on hand helps.
When the missing person returns home
When your loved one returns home, notify the police straight away. It is important not to scold them, yell, or show that you are very anxious – it is likely they will also have been frightened and anxious themselves. Instead, provide reassurance and return to a regular routine as soon as you can.