What Makes a Person with Dementia Wander?

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If you care for a loved one with dementia or Alzheimer’s, the fear of losing them can be very real. Not every person with dementia wanders, but the risk is exponentially higher. Understanding the causes that underlie a person’s desire to wander can hopefully prevent it from happening in the first place. The three main reasons leading to wandering are confusion, compulsion, and the sensation of needing to go home.

Confusion:

As we know, those suffering from dementia are prone to confusion. It can occur anywhere and sometimes causes people to lose track of where they are, even in once familiar locations. Becoming disoriented can lead to wandering because in trying to regain their location, they may make matters worse and go somewhere completely unpredictable. Confusion does not always equate to wandering or becoming lost, but if you’re in public with a loved one who has dementia it’s best to keep an eye on them. For example, let’s say you’re at the mall food court and they need to use the restroom. Don’t wait at the table for them to return. Walk with them to the restroom and wait outside the door. The risk of becoming confused somewhere in between going there and coming back is too great. Simple tasks they once took for granted can become like a maze to them.

If you’re worried, it’s smart to enroll the senior in a local Silver Alert program. Once enrolled, your loved one’s information is put into a database and if they get lost, Silver Alerts operate in much the same way as the better-known Amber Alert.  Another solution is a medical alert that has GPS tracking. If you can get your loved one to wear a pendant or bracelet, this can give you great peace of mind.

Compulsion:

Along with becoming easily confused, dementia causes people to act on their urges to a much higher degree. The feeling of needing to be somewhere else is very common. They may think they need to be working, at the supermarket, or may not even have a destination. The urge to go can be strong enough that they’ll just leave. When this type of impulse occurs and the person is expressing a desire to leave, caregivers should try to redirect the person’s attention so they are no longer in a compulsive mood.

Redirecting the patient is much more successful thantrying to tell the patient they are retired or do not need groceries. Redirection also works when people forget their loved ones are no longer alive. A caregiver can say, “we’ll stop by later,” or “she’ll be visiting with us soon.” Redirection works because it helps the person with dementia forget they wanted to leave in the first place.

The Feeling of not being Home:

Maybe the most common reason people wander is because they have the sensation they are not home. Although a senior may have lived in the same house for years, dementia can make them stop feeling like it’s their home. They may feel that a former house, or perhapstheir childhood home, is the place they truly belong. Since people forget their parents or other close relatives have passed away, they may feel the need to go to a loved one’s house. This behavior isalso atype of compulsion, sotryusing the redirection technique mentioned above.

If any of these behaviors happen frequently and you aren’t able to provide constant supervision, it could be time to look into professional care. Try by looking up Memory Care centers near you and ask to take a tour. This type of living arrangement is specifically designed to treat people with memory disorders. A senior who is constantly trying to leave cannot safely be left alone. 

Max Gottlieb is the content manager of Senior Planning. Senior Planning is a free service designed to help seniors make the transition into new living arrangements or find the benefits they need.