One of the most difficult issues for family and carers is the worry that the person living with dementia is going to ‘wander off’ and put themselves at risk of harm. Most families and carers spend a lot of time ensuring that the person living with dementia is kept safe, so it is a particular worry when the person living with dementia starts to go off on a walk, whether during the day or at night.
In fact, 6 out of 10 people living with dementia will do this at some time. Here we look at the causes of this and some suggestions for how to deal with it.
Is it ‘Wandering’, or ‘Walking With Purpose’?
The Alzheimer’s Society (www.alzheimers.org.uk) explicitly rejects the term ‘Wandering’ because they feel that the term implies that there is a purposelessness in the activity. The Society points out that people living with dementia will walk about for what is, in their own minds, a perfectly good reason.
Reasons for ‘Walking About’
In fact, one of the key strategies in dealing with ‘walking about’ is to understand why the person is doing it. Gently asking the person who is walking about, or has just returned from a walk, where they were going? Or if they were looking for something? Or if they needed something (e.g. the loo, a glass of water)? Understanding why someone is walking around can help to identify the trigger for their behaviour.
Sometimes the person living with dementia is following an old routine (e.g. doing the school run, going to work, working in the garden). Sometimes they are looking for someone who has died or something that they think they have misplaced. In each case, it helps to identify what they were doing – and also to gain an idea about where they might be going, or where they may have gone.
One of the more difficult reasons for walking about can be simple restlessness or boredom. In this case, one of the solutions might be to incorporate some gentle activities into their daily routine, so that the impulse to walk around is met in a safe way, and at a time when they can be accompanied.
Finally, and perhaps the most difficult reason to deal with, is simply that they are confused and not really able to describe why they are walking around, or where they were going.
Preventing unsupervised walking around
Experts recommend a variety of ways of making doors less attractive and obvious to people living with dementia – painting them the same colour as the walls and/or covering them with a curtain can help. As can placing a dark rug in front of the door (some people living with dementia will see a dark rug as a hole which they do not want to fall into). Keeping coats, keys and outdoor “kit” out of sight is also recommended.
Alarms and devices
There are a number of alarms and devices ranging from door alarms, GPS tracking devices and camera systems which can help carers/family members/Sharers to feel reassured by the knowledge that they will know if the person living with dementia has left the house. A good selection of devices may be found at www.unforgettable.org
Some people may feel uncomfortable about installing such devices as there is a suggestion of surreptitious surveillance about them. But for others they may be invaluable ways of allowing carers/family members/Sharers to feel reassured enough to leave the person living with dementia alone for short periods of time.
What to do if someone living with dementia has gone for a walk?
Police advice is to;
- Call 999 as soon as you realise that someone living with dementia is missing. Quick action is very important; the police will treat your call as urgent.
- Have several copies of a recent, close-up photograph of the person to give to the police and anyone else who might be searching for them.
- Have a written description of the person to pass onto the police. Include details of their appearance, clothing worn and any medication they might be taking.
- Keep a list of places that the person may have worked, lived, visited frequently or socialised as they often try to head back to places they have known.
- If the person has been reported as missing before, inform the police. A record of the person will already exist and can be updated, saving police time and enabling a faster search.
- When the person returns try not to show them that you have been worried. If they have got lost, they may be feeling anxious themselves. Reassure them and quickly get them back into a familiar routine.