Wandering in dementia patients: Causes and treatments

By: Dr. Victor Marchione | Brain Function | Thursday, October 13, 2016 - 02:30 PM

wandering in dementia patientsOne of the biggest concerns for caregivers who work with people suffering from dementia is wandering. Oftentimes, dementia sufferers feel the urge to walk around and in many cases end up wandering away from their homes. The problem is that they have difficulty remembering how to get back. For decades, medical scientists have been looking into the causes and treatments for dementia and wandering.

Dementia is a term used to describe a variety of conditions that occur when nerve cells in the brain no longer function properly or die. This malfunctioning leads to memory loss. Sadly, dementia is becoming more prevalent. In fact, most of us know someone who has suffered from dementia or we have heard about sufferers through friends.

When wandering dementia becomes a habit, it is worrisome to caregivers. A person might wander away on a regular basis and this can make people feel anxious about their safety.

Causes and reasons for wandering in dementia patients

While it may seem that wandering dementia is an aimless action, the truth is that sometimes a sufferer does have a reason for walking about. Let’s take a look at why dementia patients might wander.

  • Following habit or interest: People with dementia are still interested in continuing with their usual activities. For example, if a person is accustomed to taking walks at certain times of the day, they may still want to go for walks.
  • Need for physical activity: Wandering could be an indication that the person with dementia has energy to burn and feels they need to move around.
  • Boredom: A lot of dementia sufferers have time on their hands. Being active or occupied gives them a sense of purpose instead of sitting around all day and night.
  • Pain relief: When we are uncomfortable or in pain, we often move to ease our discomfort. People with dementia are no different. If it is an elderly person with dementia, there is a chance that other medical issues, such as arthritic pain, are a factor, and movement can bring relief.
  • Response to anxiety: When people are stressed or anxious, they are more likely to walk around. Anxiety is common in dementia patients. Additionally, some types of dementia involve hallucinations, which can cause a person to feel aggravated and want to wander.
  • Feeling lost: It may be hard to understand, but certain changes make dementia sufferers feel lost, so they tend to want to bolt. An example of this would be when a person with dementia moves to a new house or if someone moves the furniture around in their living space.
  • Restlessness: Dementia impacts the brain and this includes physical behavior. These behaviors are often described as “restlessness” and include tapping fingers, fidgeting, and even walking about. A syndrome called “restless leg”, which happens mostly at night and causes an irresistible urge to move the legs, could cause people to get up at night and walk.
  • Memory loss: As mentioned, memory loss is the major component of dementia. Short-term memory loss can cause a person with dementia to wander and become confused. The person could also be searching for something they lost or that they think they lost.
  • Searching for the past: When dementia progresses, it often causes people to try to seek out a person or some piece of information from the past. For instance, a person may be looking for a person that recently moved or a person that died.
  • Confused about time: Sometimes people with dementia get confused about time. They may wake up in the middle of the night, get dressed, and be ready for the next day not realizing that everyone is still asleep.

Tips to prevent wandering in elderly patients

mixed dementiaThe possibility of dementia wandering can be frightening, not only for the patient but also for their family, friends, and caregivers. There are some steps that everyone can take to help keep a dementia sufferer safe.

One helpful tip for managing wandering dementia patients is to develop an emergency plan so that you are prepared in the event that a person does wander. That plan can include drafting a list of people you can call for help, having an updated photo of the person and their medical information so you can pass it over to the police, as well as getting to know the neighborhood the dementia sufferer lives in and noting dangerous areas such as construction sites, creeks, open stairwells, and tunnels. It is also a good idea to find out if the person is right- or left-handed. As it turns out, wandering normally follows the direction of the dominant hand. A plan should also include a list of places the dementia sufferer may go to, including former homes, church, restaurants, or a past work place. Many people who have relatives with dementia enroll the person in Medic Alert Alzheimer’s Association Safe Return program.

Here are some practical ways to prevent wandering in the first place:

Develop a daily routine. Dementia sufferers are less likely to wander when they have activities planned that can distract and entertain them.

Reassure the person. Talk with the dementia sufferer frequently to make sure they feel safe and are free from anxiety.

Validate their concerns. Instead of correcting a person with dementia, it is best to use communication that validates their worries. For example, if a dementia sufferer wants to “go to work” then you might say, “We are staying here tonight. We are safe here and we can deal with that in the morning following a good sleep.”

Make sure needs are met. Wandering is less likely if a dementia patient has had a bathroom visit, has had their meals on time, and isn’t hungry or thirsty.

Avoid busy places. Busy areas tend to confuse people with dementia and make them feel disoriented. This is when they tend to walk away.

Use locks wisely. Place door locks out of the line of sight.

Keep car keys hidden. Some people with dementia may forget that they are not longer able to drive.

Restrict nighttime fluids. Making sure a person with dementia doesn’t drink two hours before bedtime can help cut down on waking up and having the urge to wander.

Use GPS. Consider having the person with dementia wear a GPS tracking device.

Research shows that six out of 10 people who suffer from dementia will end up wandering. If you are concerned about someone you love wandering, let your local police, your close neighbors, and other important contacts know about the condition your loved one suffers from. Keep a list of emergency phone numbers with you at all times and reach out to the local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Society. They are a good resource when it comes to caring for and protecting those who suffer from conditions like dementia.

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