Alzheimer's: Understand wandering and how to address it
Medically reviewed on July 12, 2018
Wandering or getting lost is common among people with dementia. This behavior can happen at any stage of Alzheimer's. If your loved one has Alzheimer's, he or she is at risk of getting lost — even if he or she has never wandered in the past.
There are many reasons why a person who has Alzheimer's might wander, including:
- Stress or fear. Your loved one might wander as a reaction to an unfamiliar or overstimulating environment, a loud noise or a situation he or she doesn't understand.
- Searching. He or she might get lost while searching for someone or something.
- Boredom. He or she might be looking for something to do.
- Basic needs. He or she might be looking for a bathroom or food, or want to go outdoors.
- Following past routines. He or she might try to go to work, do chores or buy groceries.
Wandering is not necessarily harmful if it occurs in a safe and controlled environment. However, wandering can pose safety issues.
To prevent unsafe wandering identify why the wandering might be happening. For example, if your loved one tends to wander at the same time every day or when he or she is bored, plan meaningful activities to keep him or her better engaged. If your loved one is searching for a spouse or child, post a sign stating that the person in question will be visiting soon to provide reassurance and reduce wandering.
Keep your loved one safe
It's not always possible to prevent wandering. To keep your loved one safe:
- Reduce hazards. Remove tripping hazards, such as throw rugs and extension cords. Install night lights to aid nighttime wanderers. Put gates at stairwells to prevent falls.
- Install alarms and locks. Various devices can alert you that your loved one is on the move. You might place pressure-sensitive alarm mats at the door or at your loved one's bedside, put warning bells on doors and use childproof covers on doorknobs. If your loved one tends to unlock doors, you might install sliding bolt locks out of your loved one's line of sight.
- Camouflage doors. Place removable curtains over doors or camouflage doors with paint or wallpaper that matches the surrounding walls. Signs on doors might help, too.
- Use a GPS device. Consider having your loved one wear a GPS or other tracking device that can send electronic alerts about his or her location. If your loved one wanders, the GPS device can help you find him or her quickly.
Ensure a safe return
Wanderers who get lost can be difficult to find because they often react unpredictably. For example, they might not call for help or respond to searchers' calls. Once found, wanderers might not remember their names or where they live.
If you're concerned about your loved one's wandering, inform the local police, your neighbors and other close contacts about your loved one's condition. Keep a list of emergency phone numbers handy in case you can't find your loved one. Keep a recent photo of your loved one on hand, too.
Also consider enrolling in the Alzheimer's Association safe-return program. For a small fee, participants receive an identification bracelet and access to 24-hour support in case of emergency.
If your loved one is lost, contact local authorities and the safe-return program — if you've enrolled — right away. The sooner you ask for help, the sooner your loved one is likely to be found.