One of the biggest concerns of caregivers who tend to 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).
Whatever the condition, the anxiety for caregivers is the same. It can become overwhelming. You may jump out of bed at every creak in the night, worried that your mom has walked out of the house. You may no longer take your son with autism to the mall, because losing sight of him for even a split second is so terrifying. You may not live with the loved one, so you may need a tracking service that will alert you when he has left his home unattended.
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 fully prevent wandering. But by following some of the tips below, you can boost your loved one’s safety. What’s more, you can feel a lot more confident and a lot less anxious.
- Secure your home. To prevent wandering, you may want to install new locks on your doors and windows that your loved one can’t open easily. If you can put them high up, they’re less likely to be noticed or reached. Depending on your situation, you may also need to install bars on windows. Buying motion detectors can alert you when someone opens an outer door. A simpler solution to prevent wandering: Hang bells on the doorknobs.
- Make sure the person always carries ID. It won’t prevent wandering, but making sure your loved one has ID at all times is crucial. Keep in mind that keeping an ID in a person’s wallet isn’t enough, because he could remove it, either deliberately or accidentally. Medical ID jewelry – like a bracelet or pendant – is a good idea. You could also consider sewing 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 her in clothing that’s easy-to-see from a distance. This can be a good way to prevent wandering if you’re planning to be in a crowd.
- Put up a fence. It can be expensive, but putting up a fence – with secured gates -- can prevent wandering while allowing 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 monitor 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 her and will work with local law enforcement, or the organization Project LifeSaver, to get her back to you.
- Know your neighbors. Introduce your loved one to your neighbors so they get to know his face. Tell them that he’s prone to wandering and that they should let you know if they see him out by himself. Give neighbors a number where you can be reached. The more explicit 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 prevent your loved one from wandering. By the same token, consider putting signs on other doors -- like the one to the bathroom -- so he can see which door leads where, and he won’t accidentally wind up outside.
- Increase physical activity. This advice doesn’t apply to everybody. But some experts believe that getting physical activity during the day can help prevent wandering at night. Even a supervised walk around the block before dinner may be enough to reduce nighttime agitation.
- Focus on sleep hygiene. Some conditions linked with wandering are associated with poor sleep quality. Wandering itself could result from sleeplessness. So do what you can to practice good sleep hygiene with your loved one. As much as you are able, get her on a regular schedule of going to bed and waking up. To help prevent wandering, reduce napping during the day and cut out caffeinated drinks.
- Consider if there’s an underlying cause. In many cases, a loved one’s wandering may not have a reason. But sometimes, caregivers come to understand that there’s a motive behind it and figure out ways to prevent wandering. If a parent with dementia becomes agitated and wanders at night, maybe it’s initially triggered by something simple – 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 wander off to investigate them. If you can predict what will attract his attention, you may be able to avoid situations in which wandering is a real risk.
Emergencies: What to Do if Your Loved One Wanders
If your efforts to prevent wandering haven’t worked and your loved one has wandered off, what should you do? Your natural reaction will probably be to run outside and frantically search in any direction.
But experts say that the first thing you should do is call 911 to alert the 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.