How to Keep People with Dementia from Wandering

By Richard Asa @RickAsa
February 24, 2017
26 Dec 2014 --- Close up of older Caucasian man smiling --- Image by © Marc Romanelli/Blend Images/Corbis

About 60 percent of people with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease will wander, putting themselves in harm’s way. Anyone who has memory problems is at risk. 

Lee Ferrero got into his car for the drive home and several hours later found himself in open farmland. He had driven two hours past his usual turnoff. 

Ferrero thought he has just “zoned out,” but subsequent testing revealed he was at the beginning of Alzheimer’s disease, a form a dementia.

Five years after that car trip, Ferrero was forced to retire as CEO of the Private Industry Council, but still drove and walked around. 

Ferrero began to write down exactly where he was going so he could refer to it later and wore an ID bracelet with a 24-hour emergency response number. He hasn't had another wandering incident, but knows he might. 

"I forget things I never used to forget and I know it's only going to get worse," he told CNN.


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About 60 percent of people with dementia will wander. Anyone who has memory problems and can walk is at risk. 

Signs of wandering in dementia

Early warning signs can include someone who: 

• Returns from a regular walk or drive later than usual

• Tries to fulfill former obligations, such as going to work 

• Tries or wants to "go home," even when at home 

• Is restless, paces, or makes repetitive movements

• Has difficulty locating familiar places like the bathroom, bedroom, or dining room

They may also ask the whereabouts of current friends or family, act as if they are doing a chore or hobby but nothing gets done, and appear lost in a new or changed environment, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

How to prevent wandering

Lowering the chances of wandering include sticking to a routine that provides the person with structure, noting the time of day that wandering is most likely to occur, reassurance that they’re in the right place, ensuring basic needs are met, and avoiding busy places that are confusing and disorienting. 

Practical tips include installing locks out of the line of sight (either high or low), camouflaging doors and door knobs, using devices as simple as a bell to indicate when a window or door is opened, always being with the person with dementia, and keeping car keys out of sight. GPS tracking devices are also available to help you keep tabs on a dementia patient.

“Individuals with dementia get confused about time and place. They may think they are late for work and walk out the door, or get confused trying to find the bathroom and go out the wrong door,” affirms David Troxel, the Home Instead Senior Care dementia consultant. He adds: “Their dementia may cause them to become frightened or upset, and walk or run away from a safe setting.”

The best way to prevent wandering, Troxel believes, is to prevent boredom and keep the person with dementia active and engaged. When you keep him busy, home becomes much more inviting. 

Finding a missing person with dementia requires a systematic approach. You need to check dangerous areas such as dense foliage near the home, look within a one-mile radius of where the person was wandering, look within one hundred feet of a road (most wanderers start out on roads and remain close by), search in the direction of the wanderer’s dominant hand, and investigate familiar places such as former residences or favorite spots. 

Why people with dementia wander varies, but it often has purpose. 

“People may wander in response to an unmet basic need like human contact, hunger, or thirst; a noisy or confusing environment; or because they are experiencing some type of distress, like pain or the need to use the toilet. Wandering can be helpful or dangerous, depending on the situation,” writes Jane Tilly, DrPH, of the federal Office of Supporter and Caregiver Services. 


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March 05, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA