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Carol Bradley Bursack, Published March 02 2013

Minding our Elders: Staying ahead of Alzheimer’s wandering

DEAR CAROL: My mom has mid-stage Alzheimer’s. She lives with me and, for now, seems safe enough at home while I’m at work. What concerns me is that she’s started talking about wanting to “go home.” I’m aware that this could mean that she’s looking for her childhood home, and that makes me worry about her making a sudden decision go off by herself to look for that home. What steps can I take to help keep her safe? Emma

DEAR EMMA: You are right that this could be a signal for you to be vigilant about wandering. While frequently caregivers don’t feel like they’ve had any warning that their loved one may wander, often there are subtle signs that this behavior is a possibility at any time. You’re a sharp caregiver to pick up this clue, and wise to start researching how to handle the problem before there’s an episode or potential tragedy.

Last year, the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America published the results of a study titled “Lost and Found: A Review of Available Methods and Technologies to Aid Law Enforcement in Locating Missing Adults with Dementia.” You can download this report from their website at www.alzfdn.org. The National Alzheimer’s Association also has a downloadable report titled “Wandering: Who is at Risk?” which can be found at www.alz.org. Both reports contain tips to help caregivers spot signs of potential wandering, as well as ideas on how to prevent their loved one from going out alone.

Some suggestions to keep a person with dementia safe at home include locking doors with a keyed lock placed well above eye level, putting STOP signs on exits since the classic stop sign will still likely have significance to them, and camouflaging exits so they match surrounding walls. My personal feeling is that when people need these strategies to keep them from walking out the door, they also need someone with them in the home most of the time, for safety’s sake.

It’s generally thought that people wander for a reason. If you try to stay ahead of your loved one’s needs, you may be better able to prevent this behavior. One risk factor seems to be boredom, and that could be an issue if your mom is alone most of the day.

It sounds to me like your mom may be a good candidate for adult day care. If she were enrolled in an adult day care program, she’d be safe while you are at work, she’d have activities that would keep her interested and she’d benefit from peer socialization. Likely, she’d even sleep better since she’d be more active during the day.

Whether or not you choose adult day care for your mom, enrolling her in a data base such as the National Alzheimer’s Association’s SafeReturn/Medic Alert, or a program called Project Lifesaver, could give you some peace of mind.

You sound like a thoughtful daughter who is staying ahead of the challenges of your mom’s disease. Contact your local Alzheimer’s organization for more help in understanding and managing her care.

Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached at carol@mindingourelders.com.