If you are a caregiver for someone with dementia you probably recognize when your care receiver is hungry, tired, or thirsty. You may recognize other signs reminding you of his or her needs. However, it is not so easy to anticipate that your loved one is likely to wander, perhaps because he or she is restless, anxious, or confused.
You may think as I did that your husband, or wife, mother, father will not wander. Despite knowing the statistics, that one in six will wander, I believed my husband, Tom, would be one of those not doing so.
The first time Tom wandered, we had rented a small condo for ten days while our condo’s flooring was replaced with tile. It was after lunch with Tom watching television when I left for a meeting. Back after two hours, Tom was gone. I frantically raced around the condo buildings, to the pool, my heart pounding but no one had seen him. Since we had walked to the nearby Residents’ Beach the day before, I ran there next. A scan of the benches where we’d sat and of the beach yielded no Tom. My second check at the guard house was again a “No, I’ve not seen him.” I’d been praying for his safe return the entire time and believe it was divine intervention that just then a police van pulled up. The driver jumped out and held the door as Tom climbed down with a big smile looking happy to see me. What a relief to see him. According to the driver, the woman who answered Tom’s knock called the police, very possibly recognizing his confusion.
That experience was enough to spur me to make changes in our preparedness so that it would never happen again. I made sure Tom had the proper ID information in his wallet, including my contact information and we both started wearing Medic Alert bracelets.
These were good actions but not enough since Tom wandered again, this time from our home condo. I had napped in our bedroom while he dozed in his easy chair with the television blaring. When I wakened, Tom was not there. I searched for him as before with no luck. Fortunately, I spotted him walking back happy and smiling with an ice cream cone just as I was ready to call the police. I was angry with him, with myself, but very relieved he was safe. This time I put a deadlock on our door and kept it locked when at home with the keys hidden.
I’d like to say that was the last of the wandering but it wasn’t. The third time Tom was in a waiting room while I had a treatment from a relatively new chiropractor. I wrongly assumed that the two receptionists, recognizing his deficits, would encourage him to wait for me if he started to leave. But no, when Tom asked where he could get ice cream in this unfamiliar shopping center, they gave him directions to the Publix market. Learning this, I again panicked, ran to Publix, and made the round of the store without finding him while his name was broadcast over the intercom. He never heard the announcement but I found him at a cash register buying a big box of Creamsicles. Along with my relief at finding him, was the realization, finally, that the search for ice cream might be leading him to wander. With a bag of ice to insure the Creamsicles would not melt we headed for home with me feeling really blessed, that again we’d connected without harm to him. After that, I always made sure that there was plenty of ice cream in the freezer and that he had some every day.
The last incident was in an out-of-town airport with no family restroom. Tom came out of the men’s restroom faster than I did from the women’s and went out of security causing me more anxious moments. Someone heard the loudspeaker announcement, identified him and called in his location. I found him, went through security again and we caught our plane.
Perhaps our misadventures will help you, as a caregiver to take action to prevent wandering. Remember the statistics: sixty percent will wander. Once a person wanders, he or she is seventy-two percent more likely to wander again according to Project Lifesaver.
The Collier County Sheriff’s office directs this program geared towards persons with dementia and other brain dysfunctions that cause them to wander away from caregivers. Angela Larson, supervisor of the Victim’s Advocacy Unit in the sheriff’s office, spoke to our Alzheimer’s Association support group on Marco Island recently. She said the average search time to find a lost person is eight hours but for someone with Project Lifesaver’s transmitting bracelet, thirty minutes. The cost for the bracelet is $270 or $300 with a year’s supply of batteries and bands. Participants in need of financial assistance may qualify for a bracelet through a donation by the Pilot Club of Naples.
Project Lifesaver participants must have an appropriate diagnosis and have a caregiver who maintains a daily log to ensure proper functioning of the participant’s equipment. The bracelets can be worn on the wrist or ankle and are water-resistant, not waterproof. Caregivers receive specific instructions on what to do if their loved one wanders, such as immediately calling 911, since fast contact is important as the average person can walk four miles in an hour. Their coverage area is all of Collier County. If traveling elsewhere, for instance to Disney World, which also has the Project Lifesaver program, local personnel there can be contacted. Persons enrolled in Project Lifesaver are automatically enrolled in C.A.R.E. (Community Assistance and Resource Education), a program established by the Collier County Sheriff’s Office to assist citizens that have special needs. For information about either program call 239-252-0231. Larson also recommends installing an ancillary slide lock on the top of exterior doors or using a contact alarm when a door is opened, putting a black rug in front of doors or hiding locks by placing a piece of Velcro over them.
Additional tips from the Alzheimer’s Association are:
- Identify the most likely times of day when wandering may occur
- Plan activities and exercises then that can reduce anxiety, agitation and restlessness
- Validate the need If your care receiver wants to “go home” or “go to work”
- Ensure basic needs are met for food, water and trips to the bathroom
- Don’t leave a person with dementia alone in new or changed surroundings
- Never lock a person in at home or in a car and keep car keys out of sight.
The Alzheimer’s Association further suggests making a plan that includes phone numbers of people to call on for help and a recent close-up photo and updated medical information to give to police.
Writing this reminds me of the small wooden plaque a college roommate from Lancaster, Pennsylvania sent me of an Amish saying, “Too soon old, too late smart.” How very apt for this former caregiver.
Shirley Woolaway has an M. Ed. in counseling and worked in journalism, in business, and as a therapist in Pennsylvania. She has 25 years personal experience with dementia as a caregiver for family members with Alzheimer’s disease, and nine years as the coordinator of an Alzheimer’s Association memory loss/caregiver support group, earlier in Pennsylvania and now on Marco Island. She has been leading a dementia support group for eleven years, three in PA and eight on Marco Island. We believe that Shirley’s insights will prove helpful to many of our readers.
For help on all aspects of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias call the national Alzheimer’s Association confidential, 24/7 helpline at 800-272-3900 or the local Bonita Springs office at 239-405-7008 for care consults and support group information. Also helpful with local educational programs, workshops, and support groups, is the Naples Alzheimer’s Support Network, 239-262-8388.