October 15, 2010

This habit of so many dementia patients have of wandering away is one of the most potentially dangerous parts of the disease and one of the most terrifying for the caregiver.  There are always stories in the news about dementia patients wandering away and never coming back.

Before my grandfather’s descent into Alzheimer’s disease, he and my grandmother owned the Western Auto Store in their small town of about 5,000 people in NE Tennessee.  Everyone in the area knew them, because they had been customers in the store.  He was a wanderer.  They lived at at the edge of the mountains.  There were rivers, creeks and lakes nearby.  The potential dangers for him were everywhere, but we were some of the fortunate ones.  He would wander away relatively often and the neighbors, the police, the townspeople, whoever, would bring him home or call my grandmother to come get him.  Many are not so fortunate.

Lots of caregivers don’t take proper precautions for wandering.  If the patient has never wandered before, the caregiver believes the patient will not wander.  This could be a deadly mistake.  Perhaps the patient goes to the mailbox and, coming back to the house, their house doesn’t look familiar.  It’s not the house they grew up in, so to them, it’s not their house.  Perhaps they go to the store with their caregiver and wander away while the caregiver’s back is turned.  Perhaps the caregiver takes a shower while she believes the patient is asleep, and he wanders away.  Whatever the case, if a dementia patient can walk, they are at risk of wandering.

What can you do?  There is a wonderful program called Project Lifesaver International which provides GPS bracelets not just to dementia patients, but to anyone at risk of wandering — those with autism, down’s syndrome, and other types of cognitive impairment.  To date, well over 2,000 successful rescues have been performed and they have a 100% success rate in finding people wearing their GPS bracelets.  Go to their website (www.projectlifesaver.org) for more information.  People always are concerned that the dementia patient will take bracelet off, but in our community out of the hundreds we have distributed, only one person has been able to successfully remove it.  There are other organizations / companies that supply devices like these, also.

Ways to prevent wandering before it happens:

  1. Childproofing – use door knob covers and keyed deadbolt locks (keeping the key around your neck for fire safety).
  2. Paint doorways and doorknobs leading outside the same colors as the walls to camouflage them.  Continue wallpaper borders across the doors.
  3. Place large, red “STOP” signs over doors you don’t wish the patient to use.
  4. Place large, black floor mats in front of doorways you don’t wish the patient to use.  They will think it’s a hole.
  5. Avoid taking the patient places where you will be distracted — grocery shopping, Wal-Mart, etc. — thereby increasing the likelihood the patient could wander away.
  6. Take the car keys away.  (We’ll cover this subject in another blog.)

Do you have other ideas about preventing a dementia patient from wandering?  Please share them!

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