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Wandering in Patients with Alzheimer's Disease and Dementia

Are you the caregiver for someone with Alzheimer's disease or dementia? Do they have the tendency to want to wander away?

Wandering is a common behavior in patients with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. And once the individual begins to show signs of wandering behaviors, they are at a high-risk of wandering away or becoming lost.

This behavior can be very distressing for caregivers, and dangerous for the individual.

Causes of Wandering

While the exact causes of wandering behavior are not fully understood, it may occur in some individuals who are searching for something, or trying to get back to a place they remember like a job or favorite destination. And sometimes people just wander or walk away because they are restless or agitated.

Common reasons people wander are:

  • Unable to retain instructions to wait, not leave, stay in the car, stay in the house
  • Agitation, or possible onset of delirium 
  • A sudden new routine or situation
  • Response to something they hear or see
  • Looking for something related to their past
  • Want to “go home” even though they are home

Signs that a Person with Dementia May Be at Risk for Wandering

They may say things like:

  • I want to go home
  • I need to go to work
  • I have to go shopping
  • They may not recognize their house anymore.
  • They need reminded about the location of their bedroom or bathroom.
  • They may exhibit increased restlessness, pacing.
  • They do not remember to come back into the house when they are outside.
  • They cannot stay on task and forget what they are doing or where they are.

Steps to Take for Preventing Wandering

There are steps that caregivers can take to help prevent wandering, or make it difficult for the person to wander away and include such things as:

  • Creating a secure environment by…
    • Locks on doors
    • Door or window alarms
    • Securing car keys
    • Child proof door knob covers
    • Not leaving the person alone at home or in a car
    • Obtain a location tracking device for the person
  • Managing restless behavior with…
    • Activities to occupy the person’s time
    • Regular physical exercise
    • Ensuring adequate sleep
    • Reporting behavior changes or increased confusion to the person’s doctor

What to Do If Your Loved One Wanders Away

Time is of the essence. It is extremely important to not delay action. Several immediate steps you can take are:

  • Notify police immediately. Call 911.
  • Have a safety plan in place, and a phone tree to alert friends and family.
  • Alert local businesses and neighbors prior to an occurrence of wandering to increase awareness of your loved ones condition and tendencies.
  • Use social media when applicable.
  • Some states have Silver Alerts.
  • In Pennsylvania, the State Police administer the Missing and Endangered Person Advisory System. Contact your local state police barracks as soon as possible.

Tools for Caregivers: The Wanderers Information Sheet

The Wanderers Information Sheet was designed to help family members of dementia patients, and local law enforcement, should a loved one or family member wander away from home and become lost.

Download this information sheet, fill it in, and keep copies of it handy for law enforcement in the event your loved one wanders away and becomes lost.

All searches begin with an investigative component. During this time you will be asked dozens of questions to aid law enforcement and search teams determine where and how to look. This information is critical to the success of the search. Completion of this form, before an incident, allows the searching to start sooner and aids in collecting more accurate information.

Other Resources

Alzheimer’s Association - Visit or call 1-800-272-3900.

Contact Us

For more information about preventing unsafe wandering in patients with dementia, creating a safe environment, and location or tracking devices that are available for families, contact Betty Robison, Gerontology Educator at the Aging Institute at 1-866-430-8742.

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