14 ways to deal with wandering and dementia

It’s common for people with dementia to wander off on their own, leaving the person caring for them in an acute state of anxiety. Find out how to cope and minimize the risks of wandering

Why does it happen?

Imagine feeling disorientated or frightened by your surroundings. Chances are you’d probably want to get away from the environment which is making you feel so confused – right? When a person with dementia has the urge to ‘wander’ it’s often because they’re feeling something similar. Maybe they don’t recognise the bedroom they’ve just woken up in, or the armchair they’re sitting in. Maybe they’re panicking because they think they’re going to be late for work, or have forgotten to buy food for dinner.

Whatever the reason, if they feel the need to get up and go out, it can be difficult – but not impossible – to persuade them otherwise.

Here’s what to do:

1. Work out why it’s happening

Are they feeling restless? Do you need to help them fight boredom? Is there a pattern to their restlessness? For example, could it be the time of day? Sundowning can increase restlessness and agitation. Is there a more obvious reason? For example, perhaps they’re trying to find a loo or they’re hungry and want to buy something to eat?

2. Talk calmly

Keep reminding them where they are and why they’re here. If they’re worried about something in particular, reassure them as much as you can. For ideas about dealing with awkward questions go here.

3. Keep busy

A bit of physical activity, or a favourite hobby to make them feel connected and engaged might be all that’s needed to reduce your loved one’s desire to wander. Besides, if they’ve had a stimulating, active day, they’re more likely to enjoy returning home, than if they’ve been stuck inside all day.

4. Develop a good bedtime routine

Dementia can cause sleep disturbance. If the person you’re caring for doesn’t seem to be getting enough sleep, they could be feeling even more restless and disorientated. Improving their sleep routine can reduce insomnia and may also help prevent night-time wandering.

5. Take a trip down memory lane

If their desire to wander seems to have been triggered by something from the past, it might help to sit down and talk about the memory together. For example, many people with dementia say ‘I want to go home’ when they really mean somewhere they used to live a long time ago. Looking at photos and recalling happy memories may reduce their need to ‘go home.’

If none of this works consider these practical tips:

6. Removing triggers

Keep coats, umbrellas, a walking shoes, bags, purses door and car keys out of sight.

7. Camouflage the front door

Cover it with a curtain or paint it the same colour as the surrounding wall. You could also put a dark rug in front of it – to someone with dementia, this may look like a hole in the floor so they won’t try to cross it. Try putting a sign above the door saying ‘Stop,’ or ‘Do not Enter.’

8. Secure doors and windows

If you are at home but can’t be watching them constantly, make sure window locks are fastened and doors are secured. You could also consider an alarm or monitor which would alert you if they do still decide to go out.

If they are absolutely determined to go out, you can’t always stop them. Instead, try to make sure:

9. They always carry identification

Even if you have to sew a name tag and phone number into their clothes.

10. Neighbours and people living nearby have been warned

And that they know to call you if they see your loved one walking on their own.

11. Consider a tracking device

There are lots to choose from and it could save you a lot of stress and heartache.

If all else fails…

12. Could you go with them?

It may be inconvenient but sometimes accompanying them on a trip out is the simplest way to ensure they stay safe and don’t get lost. You may find that they’re ready to come home within about 15 minutes…and you could spend a lot longer trying to persuade them not to go out.

13. Be prepared for the worst

If they do get lost, make sure you have phone numbers to hand for people who need to know what’s happened – from neighbours and relatives to emergency services or community police. Try adding them to your mobile contacts and have a recent photo of the person with dementia and a list of places they may have gone ready.

14. Try not to worry

Around 60 per cent of people with dementia are prone to wandering, but the vast majority of them remain safe.