Why Do Dementia Patients Wander?

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Wandering is one of the many new behaviors that occur in dementia patients. I hear sometimes, "My mom won't ever wander; I am with her 24/7."

The thing about wandering is, if your loved one hasn't done this, what you should say is, "They haven't done it yet."

My take on this is the person who is wandering is trying to get somewhere. They could be trying to get away from where they are, or they could be trying to get somewhere that is familiar to them.

The bottom line is they want to feel safe. If they do not feel safe where they are, the chances of them wandering increase tenfold at any given moment.

Making sure they feel safe and secure is the key. The slightest thing can trigger a sense of danger in a dementia patient.

The volume on the TV being too loud, the sound of a train in the middle of the night, an alarm going off, the phone ringing—all of these are things we hear on a daily basis. But when you have dementia, any of these could easily startle you. All you want to do is get away from that noise.

When a patient is found after they have been wandering, you will often hear them say they were trying to get home.

Their idea of home is not what you would think. It could be their childhood home that they lived in long before you were even born. Which you, as their child, may have no idea where it is located. It could be in an entirely different city. Or, by some miracle, they could find the home they were looking for and not even recognize it.

I tell people all the time, never take for granted what your loved one says or does. They could complain of hunger and have just finished a meal. They could say they can't sleep, but have just woken up from a full night’s rest.

They could tell you that someone or something is following them. You know all of these things are not correct, but to them, they are real as rain. And if you do not do something to ease their fear, they will do what they can to escape their current situation and get to a safe place.

Remember, if your loved one has never wandered, you need to think, "They haven't wandered yet."

In my EMS and law enforcement careers, I have seen numerous patients just walk out of a facility that was deemed secure. Dementia patients who want to get away from where they are get this idea in their head, and that is the only thing that matters to them.

They spend their entire day and night wanting to get out, whether it is their own home or a facility.

And, chances are, they will get out. I have heard of families putting locks on doors to keep their loved ones in. This in itself is dangerous.

If, God forbid, there was a fire, and in the chaos you are incapacitated by smoke inhalation, there is no way your loved one could get out of the house on their own.

I'm not a big fan of locking anyone in a house. However, I do recommend alarms. You can buy alarms for when they get out of bed, when they open certain doors in the house, or even for every door. You can purchase motion detectors to alert the caregiver of movement in the house during the night.

But, like I said, every facility I have been in for dementia patients has a security system of some sort. Most have locked doors that require a code to enter or leave.

All the other exits have alarms on them, yet patients still manage to get out. They do because of one reason: human error. Someone may have left a door ajar, or didn't arm a door with the proper code. Or, for whatever reason, someone just wasn't paying attention. As a caregiver, you are required to watch your loved one 24/7. They only need a moment to be out of your eyesight and be gone.

Has your child ever slipped away from you in a crowded environment, even if just for a moment? That sick feeling you get in the pit of your stomach is exactly what it feels like when an elder you love wanders off.

If they do wander off, hopefully it's not in the dead of winter, or they don't have access to a vehicle.

I once located a man in his eighties who had crashed his truck through a steel gate into a private golf course at about three in the morning. When I located him, he was still driving the truck around in circles. He couldn't (or didn't know how to) stop it. Thankfully, we got the vehicle stopped and attended to him. He was from a town over 400 miles away and had been missing for more than eight hours.

To say his family was relieved was an understatement. But the man himself was in a state of shock. He knew no one, had no idea where he was, had no idea where he came from, and was visibly shaken by the whole ordeal.

It took his family five hours to get to the hospital where he was taken, and he was still in such a state he didn't recognize them when they arrived.

This happens all the time with dementia patients. It should never happen, but it does. Devise a plan, and then have another for backup. Take a picture of your loved one every morning with what they are wearing so, if by chance they do get out, you will have exactly what they look like and what they are wearing ready for the police instead of trying to rack your brain for answers.
A cell phone picture is perfect. It can be taken in a matter of seconds, but could end up saving your loved one’s life.

And, if your loved one should wander, call 911 immediately. Don't waste precious time looking for them yourself. Get the authorities involved as soon as you can.

They have the necessary resources, technology and man power to search for them. If you look for your loved one for thirty minutes on your own, that is thirty minutes that they have to be out, traveling farther, and who knows in what direction.

Call 911 immediately. If they are found in the basement later, or just in the backyard, wherever, it's better to have the authorities looking with you than to bring them in an hour after your loved one came up missing.

Take this wandering thing seriously. It can be fatal. And it is always traumatic to the patient and their family members.

Rick Phelps became an advocate for dementia awareness after being diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease in June of 2010, at the age of 57. He was forced into early retirement and created Memory People, an online dementia and memory impairment group which supports over 7,000 individuals, all touched in some way by dementia.

Visit: While I Still Can

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10 Comments

Very insightful article. My Mom was always trying to get back to her husband and dog on their boat so they could all sail happily away. Excellent advice to take what your loved one says or does seriously because everything they do is trying to tell you something.
REPEAT REPEAT: Remember, if your loved one has never wandered, you need to think, "They haven't wandered yet."
Quoting E Brackey:
By far, the most serious danger posed in the earlier stages of the Alzheimer's disease is when the individual may decide they want to go for a walk, go searching for "home," or maybe just walk outside to get the paper. In a restaurant they may go to a rest-room. When they turn around, the place they expect to see is gone and they find
themselves standing helplessly confused what they see is totally unfamiliar to them.
My wife has lived in our house for 41 years and has forgotten her childhood home. So she feels safe. She will wander out to the attached garage and get in the car waiting to be taken for a ride. There is a pocket door to the garage I can lock with the lock on the other side. I can open it with a screw driver. The front door is locked with a deadbolt requiring a key to open. If there were a fire, she does know how to open the patio door to the back yard, which is about 15 feet from where she sits at the kitchen table with the TV on. So if there were a fire, she could get out. If she did get out, she could not open the back yard gate, so she would be safe in the yard, but it is unlikely she would leave the patio. If it was cold, she would not go outside. She has a care giver all day and is never left alone longer than an hour and if I go down stairs in the basement, I cna hear her move upstairs. I still check on her every 30 minutes. Since she is feeble, she does not like to get out of her chair anyway. It is a padded office type chair with arms and is very stable. So, hopefully I have the wandering problem solved with her. Also she never gets out of bed at night and besides it is difficult for her.