Learn more about wandering behaviors in those with dementia

People with dementia are susceptible to wandering — a dangerous yet common occurrence that affects about 60 percent of people with the condition, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Even more concerning is that people with dementia are frequently unaware that they are lost, says Betty Robison, MSN, RN-BC, a gerontology educator with UPMC’s Aging Institute.

“Wandering adults do not perceive themselves as lost, they lack the realization of danger, and they do not leave clues or seek help,” Robison says. “The average time it takes to locate someone who has wandered away is about nine hours, and 94 percent of older adults who wander are found within a mile and a half of their home.”

Every year, there are approximately 125,000 incidents of adults becoming lost. The stats may sound scary, but family members and caregivers can help prevent wandering by watching for signs that their loved one may stray. Dementia-wandering interventions can help family members keep their loved ones safe.

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Wandering and Dementia: What Are the Signs?

Family members and caregivers should look for warning signs that their loved one may wander. Take note if your loved one:

  • No longer remembers how to get to familiar places
  • Returns late from walks or drives with no explanation
  • Appears restless or often paces
  • Asks the whereabouts of former family members or friends
  • Acts anxious or nervous in crowded places
  • Says they want to “go home,” even when they are at home

Once you know what to watch for, create a plan with other caregivers and family members in case of a dementia-wandering incident.

“Increase awareness, make sure you have a plan in place, and remember to warn local businesses and neighbors before anything happens,” Robison says. “If an incident does occur, call the police immediately. You could also reach out on social media, if applicable.”

Dementia-Wandering Interventions

Family members and caregivers can also prevent wandering incidents by safeguarding their loved one’s home, adds Robison. For instance, a great dementia-wandering intervention is to put alarms on doors and secure your home and surrounding areas.

Further security measures include making sure doors and windows are locked and possibly covering windows that might tempt a person with dementia to go outside.

Be careful about leaving people with dementia unattended, Robison notes. “Individuals with dementia should not be left alone in a house. Also, make sure the car keys are never accessible,” she says. “We don’t want vulnerable people to get in the car and drive away.”

Dementia and Wandering Programs

Programs do exist to help family members and people with dementia who may wander. Project Lifesaver, for example, is designed to protect and locate individuals with cognitive disorders who are prone to wandering. The program is operated by various municipalities and public safety agencies, including Allegheny County. The program includes free bracelets that allow authorities to quickly locate loved ones if they become lost or wander away.

Ultimately, education is key to preventing dementia wandering.

“You need to make sure the entire family is educated about this. Maybe your family will want to set up a phone tree, or perhaps you can meet and find another way to share information,” Robison said. “Caregivers need to know how important it is to have some strategies in place to prevent it and then know what to do if it happens.”

You can begin your education with online resources on caring for your loved one with dementia. For more help with finding community resources for seniors or caregivers, you can also call the Aging Institute at 1-866-430-8742.

If you have questions about full, in-network access to UPMC doctors and hospitals, please call our help line at 1-855-646-8762.

About UPMC Senior Services

UPMC Senior Services provides resources for older adults, their loved ones, and caregivers at every stage of the aging process. We connect them with educational programs and learning opportunities to help support them, using our services to help seniors live longer and healthier lives. We partner with other organizations to determine the biggest challenges facing seniors and work to overcome them. We also work to inform in-home caregivers, hospital clinicians, and staff about the biggest challenges seniors face, striving to improve care. To learn more about our mission, visit our website.