Alzheimer's: Understand and control wandering

Alzheimer's causes disorientation, which can lead to wandering. Here's how to curb or prevent wandering, as well as ensure a safe return if your loved one is lost. By Mayo Clinic Staff

Alzheimer's disease can erase a person's memory of once-familiar surroundings, as well as make it difficult to adapt to new surroundings. As a result, people who have Alzheimer's might wander away from their homes or care centers and turn up lost, frightened and disoriented — sometimes far from where they started.

Understand wandering

Sometimes wandering is triggered by a particular medication. Often, though, someone who's wandering is:

  • Searching for something. Wanderers are often looking for something or someone familiar, especially if they recently moved to a new environment. In other cases, wanderers are trying to satisfy a basic need, such as hunger or thirst — but they've forgotten what to do or where to go. Many wanderers are looking for a bathroom.
  • Escaping from something. Sometimes wandering is a result of stress, anxiety or too much stimulation, such as multiple conversations in the background or even the noise of pots and pans in the kitchen.
  • Reliving the past. If wandering occurs at the same time every day, it might be linked to a lifelong routine. For example, a woman who tries to leave the nursing home every day at 5 p.m. might believe she's going home from work.

Prevent wandering

If you're caring for a loved one who has Alzheimer's, use simple strategies to curb wandering:

  • Address potential triggers. Offer your loved one a snack, a glass of water or use of the bathroom. Encourage physical activity to curb restlessness and promote better sleep.
  • Provide visual cues. People who have Alzheimer's often forget where they are, even inside their own homes. It might help to post descriptive photos on the doors to various rooms, such as the bathroom, bedroom and kitchen. Encourage your loved one to explore his or her immediate environment as often as necessary.
  • Plan activities and other distractions. If your loved one tends to wander at the same time every day, a planned activity at that hour could stem the wandering. It might be as simple as asking the person to fold a basket of towels or put place mats on the table for dinner. If wandering outdoors is an issue, you might want to store coats, boots and keys out of sight.
Aug. 04, 2012 See more In-depth