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The Whys Behind Wandering Behaviors

Stuart arose early, ready for a new day and excited about the prospect of going to a job he loved. He put on his favorite tie and headed out the door, briefcase in hand, to go to work as an insurance adjustor.

But in reality, Stuart is 85 years old and has been retired for 20 years. He also has Alzheimer’s disease, a brain disease that may take those diagnosed back to a different time and place.

Wandering is one of the potential symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. According to a leading authority on the issue, those who wander often are trying to get to a familiar destination with a specific purpose in mind – like a former job.

“A person may want to go back to a former job he or she had, even though it may no longer exist,” said Monica Moreno, director of Early-Stage Initiatives for the Alzheimer’s Association. “Someone may have a personal need that must be met. For example, that individual may be looking for the bathroom, but be unable to find it. So he or she goes searching and gets lost. There’s always a purpose and intent. It’s just a matter of identifying the triggers.”

Common triggers can run the gamut from tiredness and confusion at the end of the day (commonly referred to as “sundowning”) to a change in routine, such as a move from home to a care community.

The frequency of wandering typically varies according to the stage of the disease. “I work with many individuals living in the early stage of the disease,” Moreno said. “Typically the challenge during this stage of the disease isn’t wandering, it’s getting lost.” Perhaps it can be an individual who starts out to an appointment on a familiar route to a see long-time physician, and suddenly cannot remember how to get there. Early-stage Alzheimer’s disease tends to involve more disorientation, while the later stage may involve wandering to find where they want to go.”

Regardless of the whys, those who wander often are looking for safety and reassurance because they may be feeling lost, abandoned or disoriented. If the person with dementia wants to leave to “go home” or “go to work,” consider using communication focused on exploration and validation. Try to refrain from correcting the person. For example, “We are staying here tonight. We are safe and I’ll be with you. We can go home in the morning after a good night’s rest.”

Alzheimer’s disease affects everyone differently, which makes wandering unpredictable and complicated, noted Moreno. Because of that unpredictability, it’s important for families to get an early diagnosis and put plans in place to help keep individuals safe and independent for as long as possible.

Learn more at “10 Ways to Balance Independence and Safety When Caring for Someone who Might Wander”.

Thoughts and stories from others

  1. September 23, 2016 at 09:54 am
    Posted by Tom Sherman

    I have a friend who has early stage of alzheimer's & dementia. My son's father in law had a cell phone connection that helped keep up with him even if he was not missing. This system worked as long as he had a cell phone with him. As an idea, have experiments been held where an implant could be used to help locate severe cases of missing persons with the disease.. Tom Sherman Holden Beach NC
  2. September 22, 2016 at 09:08 am
    Posted by Tim Taylor

    Recently, my mom, who is 89 years old and suffers from Dementia, wandered out of the house in the middle of the night. She is unable to walk unassisted, which in this case was lucky for me. She made it to the end of our ramp but could go no further because there was nothing to hold on to, to steady herself. I found her sitting, covered with a blanket she had taken with her. When asked, she told me there was a man and a woman that had taken her outside and left her alone. I just thank God it was during the summer and was a decently warm night.

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