Monday, June 14, 2010

Tips on Alzheimer's Wandering Why it Happens and What to do

Wandering is among the most unsettling and even terrifying behaviors people with Alzheimer's display. Often poorly clad, they leave safety at random hours and strike out into unknown territory, for no apparent reason. But this seemingly aimless activity usually does have a reason. It's often an attempt to communicate after language skills have been lost.

By Bob DeMarco
Alzheimer's Reading Room

Alzheimer's caregivers ask if I am worried that my mother might wander away from me and get lost. Wandering is one of the more widely known behaviors of people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

I am not worried about my mother wandering at this time because she can't walk very far. I can say I would be very worried at this stage if she could walk.

I can't remember how many people emailed me and were lamenting that there loved one wanted to "go home." When you hear this you really need to start paying attention. The patient could make a break for it at any time.

"Going home" is an elusive term. It could mean back home to where they last lived, or home to the place were they were born. In many of the stories about wandering the patient takes off to a place they once lived that brings back fond memories.

It isn't easy to find a person suffering from Alzheimer's once they "take off." They don't wander logically. Sometimes it is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

One of the most fascinating stories of wandering I read was about a woman that wandered way from her home in Frederick, Maryland at night on foot.
To find the missing elderly woman the Frederick police had to use 50 to 60 police and civilians, and four civilian K-9 search and rescue groups.

The woman was missing for more then 8 hours in temperatures that dropped as low as 20 degrees. She was finally located "huddled up" on a property adjacent to her home. Go figure.

Another man wandered from a Denver, Colorado suburb to San Diego,California. He was lost for three days. How did he do it? He walked down to the corner and took public transportation to the Greyhound bus station. He then took a series of buses to San Diego.

Alzheimer's: Understand and control wandering

Find out why people with Alzheimer's wander and what you can do to keep them safe.

Alzheimer's disease can erase a person's memory of once-familiar surroundings and make adaptation to new surroundings extremely difficult. As a result, people with Alzheimer's sometimes wander away from their homes or care centers and turn up — frightened and disoriented — far from where they started, long after they disappeared.

Wandering is among the most unsettling and even terrifying behaviors people with Alzheimer's display. Often poorly clad, they leave safety at random hours and strike out into unknown territory, for no apparent reason. But this seemingly aimless activity usually does have a reason. It's often an attempt to communicate after language skills have been lost.

Wandering may communicate something as simple as "I'm feeling lost," or "I feel as though I've lost something." It can also signal such basic needs as hunger and thirst, the need to void, or the need for exercise or rest.

Other causes of wandering:

Too much stimulation, such as multiple conversations in the background or even the noise of pots and pans in the kitchen, can trigger wandering. Because brain processes slow down as a result of Alzheimer's disease, the person may become overwhelmed by all the sounds and start pacing or trying to get away.

Wandering also may be related to:
  • Medication side effects
  • Memory loss and disorientation
  • Attempts to express emotions, such as fear, isolation, loneliness or loss
  • Curiosity
  • Restlessness or boredom
  • Stimuli that trigger memories or routines, such as the sight of coats and boots next to a door, a signal that it's time to go outdoors
  • Being in a new situation or environment
Tips to prevent wandering

Although it may be impossible to completely prevent wandering, changes in the environment can be helpful. For example, a woman who was a busy homemaker throughout her life may be less likely to become bored and wander if a basket of towels is available for her to fold.

People with Alzheimer's often forget where they are. They may have difficulty finding the bathroom, bedroom or kitchen. Some people need to explore their immediate environment periodically to reorient themselves.

Posting descriptive photographs on the doors to various rooms, including a photo of the individual on the door to his or her own room, can help with navigation inside the home. Offering a snack, a glass of water or use of the bathroom may help identify a need being expressed by wandering. Sometimes the wandering person is looking for family members or something familiar. In such cases, providing a family photo album and sharing reminiscences may help.

Watch for patterns

If wandering occurs at the same time every day, it may be linked to a lifelong routine. For instance, a woman who tries to leave the nursing home every day at 5 p.m. may believe she's going home from work.

This belief could be reinforced if she sees nursing home personnel leaving at that time. A planned activity at that hour, or arranging for staff to exit through a different door at the end of their shift, could provide a distraction and prevent the wandering behavior.

Make a safer environment

If wandering isn't associated with distress or a physical need, you may want to focus simply on providing a safe place for walking or exploration.

Living spaces will be safer after you remove throw rugs, electrical cords, and other potential trip-and-fall hazards. Rearranging furniture to clear space can help. Childproof doorknobs or latches mounted high on doors help prevent wandering outside. Sometimes a stop sign on an exit door is enough.

Rooms that are off-limits pose a different problem. Camouflaging a door with paint or wallpaper to match the surrounding wall may short-circuit a compulsion to wander into such rooms. Night lights and gates at stairwells can be used to protect night wanderers.

Help ensure a safe return

The Alzheimer's Association's Safe Return program is designed to help identify people who wander and return them to their caregiver. Caregivers who pay a registration fee receive:
  • An identification bracelet
  • Name labels for clothing
  • Identification cards for wallet or purse
  • Registration in a national database with emergency contact information
  • A 24-hour toll-free number to report someone who is lost
  • Install locks(sliding bolt lock) or alarms on doors
  • Consider pressure sensitive mats
  • Put bells on doors that will dingle if the door is opened

You can register someone by filling out a form online at the Alzheimer's Association's Web page or by calling (888) 572-8566.

Source Mayo Clinic

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Bob DeMarco is the Founder of the Alzheimer's Reading Room and an Alzheimer's caregiver. Bob has written more than 2,260 articles with more than 295,000 links on the Internet. Bob resides in Delray Beach, FL.

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Original content Bob DeMarco, the Alzheimer's Reading Room

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