One of the biggest concerns of caregivers who help people with cognitive problems is how to prevent wandering.
Wandering is a risk associated with many conditions, such as autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome, and dementia (which can result from Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, head injuries, and Parkinson’s disease).
Of course, no one can watch another person every second of every day. We’re only human, and even the best and most dedicated caregiver can’t stop wandering every time. But by following some of the tips below, you can help to keep your loved one safe. What’s more, you can feel a lot more confident and a lot less anxious.
Secure your home. To help your loved one stay safe at home, you may want to put new locks on your doors and windows that your loved one can’t open easily. If you can put the locks high up, your loved one is less likely to notice or reach them. Depending on your situation, you may also need to install bars on windows. Motion detectors can alert you when someone opens an outer door. A simple solution is to hang bells on the doorknobs.
Make sure the person always carries ID. It won’t stop the behavior, but making sure your loved one has ID at all times is crucial. Keep in mind that putting an ID in a person’s wallet isn’t enough, because they could remove it, either on purpose or by accident. Medical ID jewelry -- like a bracelet or pendant -- is a good idea. You could also sew identification into your loved one’s jacket. Another option: temporary tattoos. They’re available in kits and give basic information about the person's health condition, along with space for your phone number.
Dress your loved one in bright clothing. If it’s reasonable and your loved one doesn’t mind, consider dressing them in clothing that’s easy to see from a distance. This can be a good way to prevent wandering if you plan to be in a crowd.
Put up a fence. It can be expensive, but putting up a fence -- with secured gates -- can stop wandering while giving your loved one a way to get some fresh air.
Use radio tracking devices. Bracelets or other jewelry with radio transmitters can be a big help. Some are short-range and designed so that caregivers can keep watch on the person themselves. Some sound an alarm on both the bracelet and a base unit when the person gets too far away. Others are services that charge a monthly fee and use devices to pinpoint the person’s location. The company can track them and will work with local law enforcement, or the organization Project Lifesaver, to get them back to you.
Know your neighbors. Introduce your loved one to your neighbors so they get to know their face. Tell them that this person may wander and that your neighbors should let you know if they see them out alone. Give everyone a number where they can reach you. The clearer you are, the better -- many people are naturally inclined not to get involved.
Put up signs. Sometimes, just hanging a sign inside a door to the outside that says ''Stop'' or ''Do Not Enter'' can be enough to stop your loved one from wandering. Think about putting signs on other doors -- like the one to the bathroom -- so they can see which door leads where, and they won’t accidentally wind up outside.
Increase physical activity. This advice doesn’t apply to everybody. But some experts believe that getting exercise during the day can help keep someone from going off on their own at night. Even a supervised walk around the block before dinner may be enough to cut down on nighttime agitation.
Focus on sleep habits. Some conditions linked with wandering have a link to poor sleep quality. The act itself could result from sleeplessness. Do what you can to practice good sleep hygiene with your loved one. As much as you are able, get them on a regular schedule of going to bed and waking up. To help keep them safely at home, have them nap less during the day and cut out caffeinated drinks.
Consider if there’s another cause.
In many cases, this behavior may not have a reason. But sometimes, caregivers come to understand that there’s a motive behind it and figure out ways to keep it from happening. If someone with dementia becomes agitated and wanders at night, maybe there’s a simple trigger, like being thirsty or hungry. Leaving a glass of water or a few crackers by the bed could help. A child with autism might have a fixation with certain sounds or objects and tend to go off to check them out. If you can predict what will attract attention, you may be able to head off situations in which going off alone is a real danger.
Emergencies: What to Do if Your Loved One Wanders
If your efforts to prevent wandering haven’t worked and your loved one has gone off, what should you do? Your natural reaction will probably be to run outside and frantically search in any direction.
But experts say the first thing you should do is call 911 to alert authorities. If your loved one is registered with organizations like Project Lifesaver or the Alzheimer’s Association Safe Return program, you can call them, too. Once you’ve done that, you can start looking yourself.