When you’re the primary caregiver for someone with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, that person’s wandering can be one of the most difficult things to manage. By the time their condition results in wandering, they might no longer be capable of explaining their thought process to you. This means it can take time — and probably some worry and frustration as well — to figure out how to help your loved one stay safe.
We spoke to Heather Mulder, associate director of outreach research at Banner Alzheimer’s Institute in Phoenix, AZ, about some effective ways that caregivers can prevent wandering.
Tip #1: Know the person with dementia
“Each person with dementia is experiencing it differently, so the best strategies will also be different,” Mulder said. “Know the person’s strengths and how their condition is developing.”
For example, if you’ve noticed they’ve had visual/perceptual changes (like hesitating when walking on uneven surfaces, or trouble discerning color or contrast), try to adapt to these changes: use a dark floor mat, or camouflage doors with paint or wallpaper. If they respond well to instructions, maybe it’s something easy like putting a stop sign on a door or labeling the doors to other rooms like the bathroom.
The key is simply being observant, and willing to try new things. The term “wandering” might make it seem like there’s no purpose behind it, “but all behavior has meaning,” Mulder explained. “So really listening to what the person has been communicating, both verbally and nonverbally, is key to preventing and potentially solving a wandering incident.”
Tip #2: If it’s accessible, make it safe — if it’s safe, make it enticing
A great way to prevent wandering is making sure the person’s safe areas are pleasant and desirable. If they like hanging out there, they’ll be less likely to wander.
“If you have a beautiful backyard,” Mulder added, “make it safe for them to spend time there.”
Surrounding your backyard with a fence is also wise. Fresh air can help your loved one feel like they aren’t cooped up — and if you’ve got a fence in place, your loved one can spend time in the backyard with minimal risk. Conversely, you should also make these areas seem less appealing during times when they aren’t safe, like closing the drapes when it’s too hot outside or when it’s bedtime. When you’re looking after someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia, smart home design makes a huge difference.
Tip #3: Prioritize diet, exercise and sleep
Mulder pointed out that a healthy diet and exercise can help your loved one’s internal clock stay accurate. Sleep quality and wandering are often linked. Reducing daytime napping can help, as can eliminating caffeinated drinks. Things like a supervised walk around the block near dinnertime can help reduce nighttime agitation/restlessness.
Late night wandering can often have other basic causes, like your loved one being hungry or thirsty when they wake up. Simply leaving some water or a snack by their bed may do the trick.
You’ve got this!
Mulder said caregivers often mistakenly think that wandering won’t happen. In reality, most people with dementia will end up wandering at some point. Caregivers can help manage the risk and give themselves some piece of mind by putting preventive measures in place before they’re needed.
To get additional help with Alzheimer’s and dementia care, visit bannerhealth.com. You may also consider reading these related articles, written with help from Banner Health experts: