Dementia Wandering Guide

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People with dementia—a group of diseases affecting the brain1 —often feel disoriented, confused, or anxious. They have a nagging feeling that they need to go somewhere or do something, but can’t quite remember what they need to do or where they need to go.

Or, as one person with dementia described it to our health expert Sally Russell, MN, CMSRN, CNE,  they feel like they’re “leaving bits and pieces of themselves around but don’t know where to find them.”  

They end up wandering, aimlessly, as a result.


Guide to dementia wandering


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Is dementia wandering dangerous?

Yes. People with dementia can get lost if they wander away from home. They won’t know how to get back, may not realize they need help, and usually don’t understand how to keep themselves safe or express a need for help.

Wandering behavior can also be dangerous inside the home if, for example, someone turns on the stove in confusion or turns the car on while it’s in a closed garage. They may also trip and fall if the home has clutter.

How do I stop someone with dementia from wandering?

While in-home caregivers should always supervise people in the middle to late stages of dementia, there are ways to prevent the ability to wander into dangerous areas like the kitchen or garage. You may not be able to eradicate someone with dementia’s pacing and wandering behavior, but you can at least provide a safe space for them to roam.

1. Make sure they’re comfortable

Your loved one may feel like pacing or roaming when they’re hungry, in pain, or aren’t sure what they’re supposed to be doing. Make sure they’re comfortable in every way possible and redirect their attention to an activity they enjoy, like working on a jigsaw puzzle, flipping through magazines, or watching TV.

2. Camouflage doors

Door mural

 *Amazon.com price as of post date. Read full disclaimer.

If a door doesn’t look like a door, someone with dementia is unlikely to open it. You can paint the door the same color as the wall so it doesn’t stand out. Remember to paint the doorknob (taking care to not paint it shut) or cover it with contact paper in the same color.

You can also buy door-sized decals that look like bookshelves or murals, like this one from VancyTop.

3. Replace “go” cues with reorienting cues

The Alzheimer’s Association recommends hiding anything that could make a person think about leaving the house.2 Keep shoes, jackets, hats, purses, or keys out of sight—even if they belong to visitors.

Instead, make sure there are plenty of signs that explain what to do in each room. Even a simple sign that says “Living Room” can help, as can other signs like “Read Magazines” or “Watch TV.”

4. Lock doors and place locks above eye level

Wandering prevention lock
Door Guardian
$24.95

 *Amazon.com price as of post date. Read full disclaimer.

If there’s a door that your loved one simply shouldn’t open—like the caregiver’s bedroom or a closet where chemicals are stored—lock it. Try a unique lock that your loved one probably hasn’t encountered before, such as the Door Guardian, and place it near the top of the door.

That said, people with dementia can still get confused by the basic locks they’ve used their entire life, so you may not need a brand-new lock.

For safety reasons, it’s best not to lock exit doors. A locked door could be fatal if your loved one cannot open it during a house fire. Use door alarms instead.

5. Use stop signs

Stop sign for wandering prevention

 *Amazon.com price as of post date. Read full disclaimer.

People with dementia usually respond to directional signs, including stop signs. Place the sign on a ribbon and string it across an entryway for an easy blockade. Or, buy a pre-made doorway stop sign like this one from NYOrtho.

6. Install gates

Best safety gate for stairs

 *Amazon.com price as of post date. Read full disclaimer.

A simple baby gate latch may be too complicated for people with dementia to navigate. Install gates at the top and bottom of stairs or in the kitchen doorway to prevent them from roaming into an unsafe area.

Your loved one still needs supervision around a gate since they can injure themselves trying to climb over it.

7. Use alarms

Best door chime for seniors
SMPL Alerts
$79.99

 *Amazon.com price as of post date. Read full disclaimer.

The best dementia wandering alarms connect to a pager the caregiver places in their pocket or on a belt clip. This pager allows the alarm to be heard only by the caregiver rather than by the person with dementia, as loud noises can increase their disorientation and confusion.

Tailor the alarms to your loved one. Some people may need bed alarms, while others need an exterior door alarm. Here are some of the options available:

bullet
Talk to a geriatric doctor for a custom care plan

In some cases, doctors may prescribe medicine to help with dementia wandering. Talk to your loved one’s geriatrician to learn more.

What kind of emergency plan should I have for a loved one who wanders?

Best GPS tracker for people with dementia
Tranquil Watch
Up to $44.95
/mo

Despite your best efforts, your loved one may wander out the door one day. Or, you may take them to a doctor's appointment or on a fun outing and find that they wandered off while you looked away for a minute. Having a plan for these scenarios allows you to act quickly to find your loved one. We gathered some ways to prepare yourself for this situation.

  1. GPS tracker: Get a GPS tracker designed for people with dementia. Put it on your loved one whenever you go out in public together. Test it regularly. We like Tranquil Watch because it has a useful home exit alarm and a one-week battery life. 
  2. Medical ID bracelet: Buy a medical ID bracelet so Good Samaritans know who to call if they encounter your disoriented loved one.

3. Documentation: Fill out the Individual Profile document from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Save a copy online and print several copies to keep at home and in the car. It can help speed up the process of an investigative search.

4. Plan ahead: Come up with a preventative plan for public outings. Ask another person to go with you so there’s always someone watching your loved one. Never leave someone with dementia alone in a car.

5. Silver Alerts: Contact your local police department and learn the procedure for filing a Silver Alert or similar report. Keep the police department’s phone number in your contacts.

FAQ

Wandering occurs in mid- to late-stage dementia.

Dementia wandering doesn’t progress in a linear fashion—everyone diagnosed with dementia is at risk for wandering.

 

That said, the Alzheimer’s Association suggests people may wander if they talk about certain activities:2 

  • “Going home” when they’re already home
  • Going to work when they no longer work
  • Visiting friends or family members who have passed on

Getting anxious in new places and forgetting how to drive home are two other ways your loved one may display wandering behavior in the future.

Restraints and sedation are considered old-fashioned techniques that, according to health expert Sally Russell, MN, CMSRN, CNE, offer convenience to the caregivers but do not improve the patient’s quality of life. It’s too easy for these tactics to cross over into abuse.

If you’re struggling to keep a loved one with dementia safe, talk to their doctor to come up with a solution. It may be time to hire an in-home caregiver or consider a nursing home.


Sources

  1. Michael J Annear et al., BMC Geriatrics, “What Should We Know About Dementia in the 21st Century? A Delphi Consensus Study,” Feb 2015. Accessed January 20, 2023.
  2. Alzheimer’s Association, “Wandering.” Accessed January 20, 2023.
Disclaimers

*Product prices and availability are accurate as of post date and are subject to change. Any price and availability information displayed on Amazon at the time of purchase will apply to the purchase of this product. Safewise.com utilizes paid Amazon links.

Certain content that appears on this site comes from Amazon. This content is provided “as is” and is subject to change or removal at any time.

Cathy Habas
Written by
Cathy Habas
With over eight years of experience as a content writer, Cathy has a knack for untangling complex information. Her natural curiosity and ability to empathize help Cathy offer insightful, friendly advice. She believes in empowering readers who may not feel confident about a purchase, project, or topic. Cathy earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Indiana University Southeast and began her professional writing career immediately after graduation. She is a certified Safe Sleep Ambassador and has contributed to sites like Safety.com, Reviews.com, Hunker, and Thumbtack. Cathy’s pride and joy is her Appaloosa “Chacos.” She also likes to crochet while watching stand-up comedy specials on Netflix.

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