Wandering away: Preventing the unthinkable for loved ones with Alzheimer's

Updated: Feb. 7, 2018 at 7:02 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - After a 75-year-old Sumter woman with Alzheimer's wandered states away this week – experts are offering tips to make sure your loved one stays safe.

If your family member is suffering from Alzheimer's disease or dementia, chances are each person's progression is different. That may mean wandering becomes an issue later down the line, even if it isn't a problem right now.

"In South Carolina, we know we have 86,000 individuals facing an Alzheimer's diagnosis. We also know that number is expected to rise dramatically by 2020 and we are looking at 120,000 individuals," said Alzheimer's Association Communications Director Taylor Wilson. "We know without a treatment or a cure or a way to slow this down, we are going to continue to see numbers that are going to increase."

Wilson said this is going to continue to be an issue in South Carolina and across the nation.

"It's very different when they are going through the behavior changes that this disease brings on," Wilson said. "We know that wandering can happen at any stage in this disease. It can happen in the early stages when they get lost coming home and can't remember how to get back. It can be in the middle stages when they are confused and disoriented and walk away from their house. And it can even be in the late stages when they aren't verbal and can't tell the person who finds them who they are and where they need to go."

The Alzheimer's Association offers tips for you to be aware of the risk factors. They say signs of wandering behavior in a person may be when that person:

  • Forgets how to get to familiar places.
  • Returns from a regular walk or drive later than usual.
  • Talks about fulfilling former obligations, like going to work.
  • Tries or wants to “go home,” even when at home.
  • Is restless, makes repetitive movements or paces.
  • Has a hard time locating familiar places like the bathroom, bedroom or dining room.
  • Acts as if doing a hobby or chore, but nothing gets done (e.g., moves around pots and dirt without actually planting anything).
  • Acts nervous or anxious in crowded areas, such as shopping malls or restaurants.

The organization also offers tips for preventing wandering, including:

  • Provide opportunities for the person to engage in structured, meaningful activities throughout the day.
  • Make sure the person gets some exercise, which can reduce anxiety, agitation, and restlessness.
  • Place deadbolts either high or low on exterior doors if you worry about wandering at night.
  • If the person is no longer driving, remove access to car keys — a person with dementia may not just wander by foot. The person may forget that he or she can no longer drive.
  • Do not leave someone with dementia unsupervised in new surroundings.

WIS met Christopher Lykes, of Swansea, on Wednesday. He shared his experience being one of the caretakers for his grandfather, who has Alzheimer's. Lykes said as his grandfather's disease has progressed, he has developed different behaviors.

And the latest one – is wandering. He remembered one specific time when his grandfather wandered out at 2 a.m.

"Before he started wandering a lot, we didn't have any locks on the doors," Lykes said. "He didn't have a wristband on he walked out one morning about 2 a.m., 3 a.m."

WIS: "What do you remember thinking when that was happening?"

"That he's going to be dead when we find him," Lykes said. "We were worried to death. That's what I was scared of."

Luckily, the family and authorities located Lykes' grandfather two miles from the house. He described the moment his grandfather was found OK.

"Relief," Lykes sighed. "And let's find a way to keep him in. After that particular incident, we got my cousin to put locks on both sides of the door so he couldn't get out. And we put alarms on the windows so he couldn't climb out of the windows to get out.

If your loved one is prone to wandering, the Alzheimer's Association offers a few tips. Try providing some structured activities and make sure they get regular exercise. Install deadbolts and locks on doors and windows and take away those car keys.

Lastly - make sure someone is always with them in a new setting.

If you want more information or resources for anyone suffering from Alzheimer's, click here: www.alz.org

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