Wandering is one of the most frightening symptoms of Alzheimer's or another type of dementia. 60% of people with dementia get lost at some point during their illness. And more concerning is that about half of people who go missing for more than 24 hours end up seriously injured or dead.
In this article I'll explain why wandering can happen in a person with dementia, present some of the warning signs that a person with dementia may be at risk of getting lost as well as tips to try to prevent the person from becoming disoriented and going missing.
Why does someone with dementia get lost?
Most types of dementia affect multiple areas of brain function and thinking, not just memory. Looking at how dementia can affect these cognitive domains it's not hard to see why getting lost could happen.
Memory Loss : A person could forget that their home is their home and think that they need to be at a previous residence. They could also forget that they've already run an errand and try to go out and do it again. A person with severe memory loss could forget that they were retired and try to go to work.
Agnosia (trouble recognizing familiar objects or people): A person with dementia might not recognize their home or a familiar route despite being down at thousands of times.
Visual-spatial impairment: this might lead to problems with figuring out how to plan a route or how to navigate when trying to find a way home.
Language issues: The impairments in communication skills that can happen with dementia could make it harder to ask for directions or understand those directions even if they are provided.
Warning signs of getting lost
One of the most frightening things about wandering is that it can become an issue very suddenly. A family member might think that there is no risk of getting lost until it happens and that can be a very unpleasant shock.
Warning signs can include the following behaviour changes:
· wanting to go “home”
· appearing restless or busy
· a person going out and coming back much later than you would have expected
· trying to go to work when they’re retired
· asking for family even when they are present, or asking for family members who have died
· just appearing more disoriented even in a familiar environment
Reducing the risk of wandering
If you're noticing some of these changes in behaviour, it's a good idea to take some steps and try to reduce the risk of a person with dementia actually getting lost. It's also a good idea to talk about some of these strategies before the issue comes up or before the dementia gets more advanced. Some of these strategies are a little bit controversial and could involve some ethical dilemmas, such as whether or not a person should be tracked with a GPS system when they go out. If you have a chance to talk about this with the person with dementia ahead of time it could ease your conscience when you put some of these measures in place later on.
Here are some suggestions for how to reduce the risks associated with getting lost:
· Make sure that neighbours know the person is at risk of getting lost
· Get on a wandering registry (the Alzheimer Society can give you advice about this)
· Consider a GPS tracker
· Get a door alarm
· Consider a new door access system
· Try to have a recent photo of the person with dementia that you could share in the event that they get lost
· Find out why the person is trying to leave and consider modifying the environment or daily activities to reduce those triggering events.
To learn more about dementia, visit our other articles here on The Wrinkle.