- Written by Megan Joyce Megan Joyce
For caregivers of people with memory issues, keeping their loved one in a safe space — whether it’s their home or a care facility — is vital to the person’s well-being. But the reality is that 6 in 10 people with dementia will wander away from that safe space at least once.
Someone with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia may wander as a result of agitation, confusion, anxiety, overstimulation, or the belief that they are searching for something. They may become disoriented and attempt to relive the past or revive past habits, such as going to work or returning to a familiar neighborhood.
While wandering, the person might not recall their name or address, making it difficult for those who encounter the person to assess their needs and return them to safety.
Clay Jacobs, vice president of programs and services for the Alzheimer’s Association Greater Pennsylvania Chapter, said anyone who has memory problems and is able to walk is at risk for wandering, even in the early stages of dementia. There are certain behaviors, however, that are red flags indicating wandering is more likely to occur.
“It’s important to plan ahead for this type of situation,” Jacobs said. “Be on the lookout for the following warning signs: [your loved one] returns from a regular walk or drive later than usual; tries to fulfill former obligations, such as going to work; has difficulty locating familiar places like the bathroom, bedroom, or dining room; or appears lost in a new or changed environment.”
There are some steps caregivers can take to reduce the likelihood of wandering, such as creating a daily routine for their loved one, which reduces his or her anxiety. Identify the times of day when agitation is highest — these are the times when wandering is likelier to occur — and plan activities and exercise for those times.
“It’s also important to understand how the stress experienced by families and caregivers when a person with dementia wanders and becomes lost is significant,” Jacobs added. “Have a plan in place beforehand so you know what to do in case of emergency.”
Statistics show that 94 percent of people who wander are found within just 1.5 miles of their home, so Jacobs recommends caregivers ask neighbors to call if they ever see the person with memory issues alone; keep a recent, close-up photo and updated medical information handy to give to police; provide the person with ID jewelry; and keep a list of places where the person may wander (former homes or jobs, restaurants, places of worship).
Another interesting note to make is whether the person with dementia is right- or left-handed, as wandering tends to follow the direction of the dominant hand.v
Once it is determined that a loved one is missing, caregivers should call 911 and file a “missing report” for a person with dementia, a “vulnerable adult.” Police will then begin to search for the individual.
In addition, Jacobs encourages caregivers to enroll their loved one in MedicAlert® + Alzheimer’s Association Safe Return®, a 24-hour, nationwide emergency-response service for individuals with Alzheimer’s or related dementia who wander or have a medical emergency.
When a caregiver calls the emergency-response line to report a missing person, a community network will be activated, including local Alzheimer’s Association chapters and law enforcement agencies, Jacobs said. Critical medical information will also be provided to emergency responders if needed.
A person enrolled in the program will be wearing MedicAlert® + SafeReturn® ID jewelry, so that whoever locates the individual can call the toll-free number listed on the jewelry. MedicAlert® + SafeReturn® then notifies the listed contacts to make sure they are returned home.
ComfortZone, another program available through the Alzheimer’s Association, allows caregivers to monitor the person with dementia from a secured website and receive alerts when the person leaves a preset safety zone.
“[ComfortZone] provides peace of mind and allows independence for the person living with Alzheimer’s,” Jacobs said.
The service includes enrollment in MedicAlert® + SafeReturn® as well as 24/7 access to a monitoring center.
“Both services can be in place concurrently but have different aims,” Jacobs said. “ComfortZone is meant for daily use … It can be changed depending on the progression of the disease and can range from a device placed in a vehicle to something directly on the person.”
Another safety option for caregivers is Project Lifesaver®, a rapid-response public safety program protecting individuals with Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other cognitive challenges. The 501(c)3 program was founded in Virginia in 1999 and is marking its 20th anniversary this year.
Project Lifesaver® participants wear a personalized wristband (a transmitter) on their wrist or ankle, which emits a tracking signal on an individually assigned FM radio frequency, explained Gail Monteleone of the Pilot Club of Lancaster, a community-service club that worked in conjunction with local police departments to bring Project Lifesaver® to the county.
When a caregiver calls 911 to report that someone enrolled in Project Lifesaver® has wandered, a search team uses a handheld mobile receiver to locate the tracking signal of the individual.
According to its website, Project Lifesaver® has more than 1,200 participating agencies throughout 47 states in the U.S. and in Canada and Australia.
Project Lifesaver programs are also available through various police and sheriff’s departments, senior living communities, and throughout southeastern Pennsylvania (see sidebar for details).
Monteleone said that, on average, the individual who wandered is usually found within 30 minutes of notifying law enforcement.
“Parents and caregivers of the enrollees feel a sense of relief knowing that this safety net is ‘around’ their family member,” she said.
Services such as these have been created with a primary goal of returning people with memory issues who have wandered to their safe spaces and to their caregivers.
But also essential in their design is peace of mind for those caregivers, who should not blame themselves if their loved one wanders and can instead count on the support of these programs to help bring the person home.
“Wandering can happen, even if you are the most diligent of caregivers,” Jacobs said.
Project Lifesaver information for Berks, Chester, Cumberland, and Lebanon counties:
• Berks County Sheriff’s Department: (610) 478-6240, ext. 3214
• Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office: (717) 240-6390
• East Pikeland Township Police Department: (610) 935-0606
• Elmcroft Senior Living (Lebanon): (717) 228-0909