Wandering risk more dangerous in winter

The Alzheimer’s Association has tips to help people with the disease, and their caregivers, navigate the winter months and reduce the risk of wandering. The organization also offers free MedicAlert jewelry. (Photo courtesy of the Alzheimer’s Association)

SOUTHFIELD — The “sundowning” confusion that increases during the winter months in individuals living with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias can also lead to a higher risk of wandering and getting lost.

“Wandering is dangerous at any time of the year, but especially during the winter, when cold increases the risk to those you are caring for,” said Jean Barnas, program services director for the Alzheimer’s Association Michigan Chapter, in a news release.

Alzheimer’s disease can cause affected individuals to lose their ability to recognize familiar places and faces. An estimated 60% of people living with dementia will wander at least once; many do so repeatedly. If they are not found within 24 hours, up to half of wandering individuals will suffer serious injury or death.

The cold and increased dark hours of winter cause an increased risk.

Signs a person living with Alzheimer’s or another dementia is at risk of wandering include returning from a regular walk or drive later than usual; forgetting how to get to familiar places; talking about fulfilling former obligations, such as going to work; trying or wanting to “go home,” even when they are at home; and having difficulty locating familiar places, such as the bathroom, bedroom or dining room.

Individuals who are wandering typically have a destination or purpose — for instance, going to the bathroom or going to work — but disorientation can cause them to get lost.

The following tips can help reduce the risk of wandering:

≤ For those experiencing sundowning who are more likely to wander in the evening, plan activities to do during that time that may reduce restlessness.

≤ If the person is no longer driving, remove access to car keys — a person living with dementia may not wander by foot. The person may forget that he or she can no longer drive.

≤ Avoid busy places that are confusing and can cause disorientation, such as shopping malls.

≤ Place deadbolts out of the line of sight, either high or low, on exterior doors.

≤ Use night lights throughout the home.

≤ Install warning bells above doors or use a monitoring device that signals when a door is opened.

≤ Store items that may trigger a person’s instinct to leave, such as coats, hats, pocketbooks, keys and wallets.

≤ Do not leave the person alone in a car.

≤ Keep a recent, close-up photo of the person on hand to give to police, should the need arise.

≤ Create a list of places the person might wander to, such as past jobs, former homes, places of worship or a favorite restaurant.

The Alzheimer’s Association Michigan Chapter has a free assist that can help in the case an individual does wander and get lost. Thanks to a generous donor, MedicAlert jewelry, membership and annual renewal is free.

If registration is done through the Chapter, there is no out-of-pocket cost to the person living with Alzheimer’s or dementia or their caregiver. The service provides 24-hour nationwide emergency response service for individuals with dementia who wander and have a medical emergency.

As a main contact for the Michigan Chapter’s Helpline calls, Program Coordinator Caitlin Goyer frequently speaks with individuals throughout the state who are impacted by dementia and if needed, registers them for this program.

“One caregiver’s husband had been leaving the house without warning very frequently recently,” Goyer said. “She would always find him, but she was so afraid that someday he would wander farther.”

She had been relying on a phone app to track him, but the last time he wandered, he didn’t take his phone. That’s when the caregiver knew she needed something more.

“When I suggested Medic Alert she was thrilled,” Goyer said. “She called me a few weeks after having the bracelet and told me that it has given her such peace of mind.”

If a person with dementia does wander away from the home and can’t immediately be located, take the following action:

≤ Start search efforts immediately, including in less-traveled areas of the house. Consider whether the individual is left- or right-handed — wandering patterns generally follow the direction of the dominant hand.

≤ Begin by looking in the surrounding vicinity — many individuals who wander are found within 1.5 miles of where they disappeared.

≤ If the person is not found within 15 minutes, call 911 to file a missing person’s report. Inform the authorities that the person has dementia and is a “vulnerable adult.”

Those concerned about themselves or someone in their care can contact the Alzheimer’s Association’s Helpline, which can be reached 24/7 at 800-272-3900. For more safety resources, visit alz.org/safety.


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