Understanding and handling wandering and the dementia sufferer


By Micha Shalev

People suffering from dementia display many common behavioral traits, and one of the hardest to manage and understand is wandering.

There are a number of reasons why many people with Alzheimer’s wander away and get lost. It is often that they forget where they are or decide to do something, then get lost as they forget what it was they were trying to achieve. This is not always the case and wandering may be the sign of distress or illness.

We are all wanderers to varying degrees. Dementia-driven wandering can seem random to others, but it can be the result of boredom, curiosity or just a general desire to get up and go. Caregivers tell stories of patients wanting to go home, even when they are home.

The literature of wandering — Homer’s Odysseus, Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, Steinbeck’s Dust Bowl families, for instance — fills shelves and shelves.

Discovering the triggers for wandering is not always easy, but can provide insights to dealing with the behavior:

•Stress, anxiety — Although stress and anxiety are a normal and unavoidable aspect of life, the way we cope will depend on a number of things. When you have dementia wandering away may be one way to express stress and/or anxiety. The inability to think things through and then act has a major impact on expression of uncomfortable feelings.

•Restlessness, agitation — Restlessness and agitation in Alzheimer’s can cause many different types of behavior, wandering is just one of them.

Confusion related to time and place.

•A desire to fulfill former obligations — This can include numerous things such as going to work, going to the subway, caring for a husband or child, meeting family and friends.

•Medication, medication side effects — Drugs used to treat medical conditions can sometimes result in unwanted side effects. Medications that are used to treat agitation, such as Diazepam, can result in lessened anxiety but increase uninhibited behavior. Other drugs can cause agitation, or can make someone feel physically uncomfortable, resulting in wandering.

•An inability to recognize the familiar — Not being able to recognize familiar people, places and objects can cause fear, panic or just the desire to go and find a familiar place or person.

•Fear arising from the misinterpretation of sights, sounds Some people with dementia may run away or get away if they are frightened by something. This may be a result of misinterpreting something going on in their environment.

As the population of Alzheimer’s sufferers grows, organizations and companies are developing potentially helpful technologies. LoJack, the stolen-automobile recovery company, offers a SafetyNet bracelet that allows people to keep track of dementia-driven wanderers via radio signals. A shoe company, Aetrex Worldwide, and a firm that makes global positioning devices, GTX Corp., have created shoes containing GPS technology for wanderers to wear.

Micha Shalev, MHA, is the owner of Dodge Park Rest Home and the Adult Day Care at Dodge Park located at 101 Randolph Road in Worcester. He can be reached at 508-853-8180 or by e-mail at m.shalev@dodgepark.com. View more information online at www.dodgepark.com. Archives of articles from previous issues can be read at www.fiftyplusadvocate.com.