Alzheimer's blog

Don't prejudge Alzheimer's wanderers who may really have a goal

By Angela Lunde June 11, 2014

Recently, the story of a "wandering man" with Alzheimer's circulated through social media. The CBS news story "When Love Becomes an Instinct" told the story of Melvyn and his wife, Doris.

Melvyn was diagnosed with Alzheimer's 3 years ago, and last month, the day before Mother's Day, he went missing. After 40 minutes or so, Doris called police. The reporter noted that police get these types of calls from time to time.

The word "wandering" is a description or a label attached to people living with Alzheimer's who leave some pre-defined boundary. Sometimes it can be called elopement. Some think it occurs because they have a brain disease.

But is it possible that just like the rest of us they have somewhere they need to go? Is it possible that wandering may not be aimless at all?

To try and make sense of things we don't understand or like, we often attach labels. In Alzheimer's, we use words like sundowning, uncooperative or wandering. Yet each of these so called behaviors is not so much a symptom of a brain disease as they are ways of responding to an unmet need. Once we understand what the person is trying to achieve or communicate, we can begin to find ways to satisfy that need.

In his excellent book "The Art of Dementia Care", Daniel Kuhn talks about the gift of understanding. That is, when we believe there are meaningful explanations for what persons living with dementia do, we begin to look for a cause rather than judging, labeling or dismissing it because they have Alzheimer's.

Daniel writes that we're all motivated by 4 universal needs; the need to feel useful; the need to care for someone or something; the need to feel worthy and special; the need to give and receive love. Persons living with Alzheimer's are no exception.

What Melvyn wanted was to buy flowers for his wife. He had bought her flowers every Mother's Day since the birth of their first child. Clearly he cares deeply for his wife and he wanted to feel worthy of her affection and for her to feel special.

He had a strong need to give love and to receive love in return. The two police officers from Little Rock, Arkansas, who found him understood this. They saw a man on a mission, not just an Alzheimer's patient wandering aimlessly.

Kudos to them for demonstrating what each of us can do in our own neighborhoods and communities. They saw Melvyn, a person, not just a disease. They paid attention to him to understand and respond to his needs.

Before taking him home, they drove him to a grocery store, gave him a little assistance in buying flowers, and discretely slipped the cashier the cash that Melvyn was short. They treated Melvyn with respect and dignity.

This is what dementia-friendly communities are all about — working to help people with dementia live well by showing understanding, kindness and support.

But like Melvyn, even a person on a mission can become lost or disoriented. Nearly 60 percent of those living with Alzheimer' get lost sometime and many do so repeatedly. Melvyn's wife did the right thing and got police involved early.

If you're caring for someone with dementia, make sure the person carries some form of identification or the name and phone number of someone to contact if they get lost.

Consider identification bracelets like those provided by the Alzheimer's Association. If the person uses a mobile phone, ensure that the phone number of a primary family member is stored in it and is easily accessible. If the mobile phone is turned on it may be possible to track the person. Additional specialized tracking devices are also available.

If you run across someone in your community who appears to be confused or lost, check for a Medic Alert or Safe Return bracelet. If they seem to need help, gradually work to gain their trust and understand what they need. You might suggest that you work together toward whatever they're trying to accomplish and that the police could be helpful.

June 11, 2014