Monday, December 19, 2011

Preventing Wandering in Alzheimer's Patients

Patty McKinney, OTR
Alzheimer's Disease causes a number of changes in the brain and body that may affect safety. Depending on the stage of the disease, these can include changes in judgment, abstract thinking, sense of time and place, and behavior.  As the disease progresses the person's abilities will change, so situations that are not a concern today may become potential safety issues in the future.

One danger to be aware of is wandering in Alzheimer's patients. According to the Alzheimer's Association, about 60 percent of the nation's 5 million Alzheimer's patients will wander. If you are caring for a loved one who suffers from Alzheimer's, these are things to keep in mind to minimize risk and keep your loved one safe.

Wandering is more likely in certain situations, like when someone with dementia is in unfamiliar surroundings. People with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia often leave clues that they're about to wander. If your loved one says, "It's time to go to work," she might truly be headed out the door in a few minutes. "I want to go home" might mean he's about to go in search of his childhood home, and you have to stop him.

Learn to distract them. Avoid saying, "Dad, you haven't worked in 30 years." Reasoning is not effective, but distracting is a good strategy. For example, if they say they want to go to work, encourage them to go and find their shoes, or to have breakfast first. The distraction is usually sufficient to take their mind off of going to work.

Block or disguise the exits. For safety reasons, never lock a person with dementia in a home alone. Doors can be blocked if a caregiver is with them. Other ideas include placing a mirror or a stop sign on the door.

Another strategy to prevent wandering is to label your rooms. Sometimes people with dementia will go wandering off in search of the bathroom or a glass of water, get distracted and actually leave the house. The Mayo Clinic suggests putting a picture of a toilet on the door to the bathroom or food on the door to the kitchen, so they can more easily find what they need.

Alzheimer's patients sometimes wander out of boredom, or because they are not receiving attention. Engage your loved one in activities to whatever degree you can. For example, washing dishes or folding clothes together. 

Have your loved one take a walk or exercise with you. The physical effort is usually calming. Even if they're not tired afterward, the social engagement of the walk might be enough to keep them from wandering in search of company.

Consider technology as a help in your safety precautions. You can attach a Global Positioning System (GPS) device to your loved one on a bracelet or shoe. If he or she wanders, you can go online to find them on a map. Some devices alert you if a door is open in the house. The Alzheimer's Association has an overview of electronic devices that can help keep track of Alzheimer's patients. 

Finally, many families aren't sure they can safely keep their loved one with dementia at home. The Alzheimer's Association has a guide to determining what kind of care a person needs, and a guide for finding professional assisted living facilities or other long-term care options. Check for additional information and resources.

Patty McKinney, Occupational Therapist, is the owner and operator of Glenwood Springs Harmony House, an assisted living facility with peaceful accommodations and professional, qualified personal caregivers.

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