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Tips to prevent wandering as temperatures continue to drop

Six in 10 people with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia will wander, according to a release from the Alzheimer’s Association. It is one of the most unsettling behavioral changes common for someone with Alzheimer’s disease, yet it often surprises family caregivers and can end with tragic results. The Alzheimer’s Association has some tips to prevent wandering. (Courtesy photo)

MARQUETTE — Persons living with Alzheimer’s and dementia are prone to wandering, which often puts them at risk. As temperatures continue to drop across Michigan this winter, those risks increase exponentially.

Six in 10 people with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia will wander, according to a release from the Alzheimer’s Association. It is one of the most unsettling behavioral changes common for someone with Alzheimer’s disease, yet it often surprises family caregivers and can end with tragic results.

“Most people with dementia wander with a purpose and are trying to get somewhere,” said Jean Barnas, program director for the Alzheimer’s Association Michigan Chapter in the release. “Wandering can happen in the early, middle or late stages of the disease as people experience losses in judgment and orientation. It can also happen if they are still driving or have access to car keys. They may drive away and not know how to get back.”

The Alzheimer’s Association 24/7 Helpline often takes calls from concerned caregivers and family members.

“One call we received was about a gentleman who had wandered from his assisted living facility,” Barnas said. “All morning before he wandered, he was talking about going to work. He was confused and upset because he was late. Police found him many miles away in Detroit where he had a mail route. (He was a mail carrier for more than 30 years.) They had no idea how he got there.

“Wandering among people with dementia is dangerous — especially during Michigan’s cold winter months — but there are strategies and services to help prevent it.”

The Alzheimer’s Association suggests the following tips for preventing wandering:

≤ Have a routine for daily activities.

≤ Identify the most likely times of day that wandering may occur. Plan activities at that time. Activities and exercise can reduce anxiety, agitation and restlessness.

≤ Reassure the person if he or she feels lost, abandoned or disoriented. If the person with dementia wants to leave to “go home” or “go to work,” use communication focused on exploration and validation. Refrain from correcting the person. For example, “We are staying here tonight. We are safe and I’ll be with you. We can go home in the morning after a good night’s rest.”

≤ Ensure all basic needs are met. Has the person gone to the bathroom? Is he or she thirsty or hungry?

≤ Avoid busy places that are confusing and can cause disorientation.

≤ Place locks out of the line of sight. Install either high or low on exterior doors, and consider placing slide bolts at the top or bottom.

≤ Use devices that signal when a door or window is opened. This can be as simple as a bell placed above a door or as sophisticated as an electronic home alarm.

≤ Provide supervision. Do not leave someone with dementia unsupervised in new or changed surroundings. Never lock a person in at home or leave him or her in a car alone.

≤ Keep car keys out of sight. If the person is no longer driving, remove access to car keys — a person with dementia may not just wander by foot. The person may forget that he or she can no longer drive. If the person is still able to drive, consider using a GPS device to help if they get lost.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association’s 2020 Facts and Figures Report, 16 million Americans provide unpaid care for people with Alzheimer’s or other dementias. In Michigan, more than 518,000 caregivers provided 590 million hours of unpaid care last year alone.

The most important thing for caregivers, according to Barnas, is to have a plan in place in case of an emergency.

“It is important to even start with a diagnosis as soon as warning signs appear,” Barnas said. “Then include the person diagnosed in their own plan of care, and this can include safety plans. Safety plans may include, for example, keeping a list of people to call on for help, a list of where the person may wander, and a recent close-up photo and updated medical information to give to police. They may also include tracking devices or apps, as well as a MedicAlert membership plan, which helps first responders and families reconnect with individuals living with dementia who experience a medical emergency or have wandered.”

Individuals needing advice or assistance should call the Alzheimer’s Association’s 24/7 Helpline at 800-272-3900 or visit alz.org/gmc.

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