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Alzheimer's Disease and Wandering

Posted Nov 21 2010 9:30am
Wandering is among the most unsettling and even terrifying behaviors people with Alzheimer's disease display. Often poorly clad, they leave safety at random hours and strike out into unknown territory, for no apparent reason....
By Bob DeMarco
Alzheimer's Reading Room

Current statistics indicate that about 60 percent of persons suffering from Alzheimer's disease will wander. This makes the potential pool around 3,000,000 individuals. Imagine, 3 million individuals getting lost without any earthly idea of how to get home.

I am really amazed at the number of people that are being reported as lost and wandering each day. The reports on the number of people with Alzheimer's disease that "take off" just continues to climb.

One of the more remarkable things about people with Alzheimer's disease that wander is that, they are sometimes found far from home or right next door. Found close to home after a massive manhunt.

For some reason this continues to mystify me, Alzheimer's patients can slip away and then become a ghost. They disappear and no one can see them.

Don't believe me? Consider this story.

Florence Lorraine Leatherman, who suffered from Alzheimer's disease, wandered out of her home around 11 PM one night. 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.

They finally located her the next morning around 8 AM.

They found her conscious, on a property adjoining her home. She was found huddled up against a piece of plywood near an old shed. Evidently she was walking around earlier because the area where she was found had been searched more than once.

They found her virtually next door after 9 nine hours of searching. Looking for someone who is lost and suffering from Alzheimer's is often like looking for a needle in a haystack.

By the way, Florence and her family were very lucky. The temperature fell to thirty degrees during the night with a wind chill near 20 degrees. Florence was out in the elements the entire time.

Luckily she made it.

Not everyone is so lucky.

Of those found within 12 hours, 93 percent survive. Seven percent don't. So, about one in 14 don't make it home alive in this category.

Of those lost more than 24 hours, only a third survive. That is a sobering statistic.

Of those lost more than 72 hours, only 20 percent survive. One in five. Sobering.


Wandering is among the most unsettling and even terrifying behaviors people with Alzheimer's disease 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.

Alzheimer's disease: Understanding and trying to Control Wandering

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

Often a person suffering from Alzheimer's disease wanders because they are trying to get home. Home to where they lived as a youngster, back to their own home, or home to a place with fond memories. Like a city or town.

Sometime persons suffering from Alzheimer's disease get lost while driving. They just keep driving in the wrong direction getting farther and farther away from home. Most time they run out of gas and are then located.

Some Causes of Wandering are Specific to the Immediate Evnironment

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 Can 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

A few Tips to Help Prevent Wandering

Although it may be impossible to completely prevent wandering, some of these may 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. Help them move around and talk as you go, for example, let's go to the bathroom. Or let's go in the kitchen, its time to cook.

You might consider putting a sign on the bathroom door. Or a picture, like a toilet. Putting a descriptive picture on a bedroom door might be helpful, or a picture of the person.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so visual aids can be helpful.

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.

I did reorient the furniture in our home so my mother can see me. The area where she watches television is within direct eye sight of the area where I work on the computer. This stopped her from asking over and over -- "Bobby where are you". It also stopped her from looking for me, including look out the front door.

Watch for Patterns

If wandering occurs at the same time every day, it may be linked to a lifelong routine. For example, a person who tries to go out the door at 5 PM might be thinking its time to go home from work.

This belief could be triggered if a person sees nursing home personnel leaving to go home at the same time each day.

If a person seems to start wandering at the same time each day, a planned activity at that hour could provide a distraction and prevent the wandering behavior. It is always a good idea "to get out in front" of repetitive behaviors to try and change the pattern.

Making 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.

Consider Trying the Following to Protect Someone Who Does Wander Successfully
  • Use an identification bracelet
  • Put name labels in clothing
  • Put identification cards in wallets or purses
  • Consider registration in a local or national database with emergency contact information

If you have a helpful tip, some insight or advice about wandering please use the comments box below this article to tell us about it.

Sources of information included the Alzheimer's Reading Room and Mayo Clinic

Insight and Advice

Bob DeMarco is the Founder of the Alzheimer's Reading Room and an Alzheimer's caregiver. Bob has written more than 2,011 articles with more than 200,000 links on the Internet. Bob resides in Delray Beach, FL.

The Alzheimer's Action Plan
300 Tips for Making Life Easier

Original content Bob DeMarco, the Alzheimer's Reading Room

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