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Six Surprising Signs That Impaired Seniors May Wander

By Steve Barlam

Family members and caregivers of seniors with cognitive impairment are well aware of the risk that an impaired senior might wander away.  The mere combination of memory problems and the ability to walk makes it likely.  According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 60% of individuals with Alzheimer’s will wander at some point.

The triggers, too, are familiar and intuitive to many.  Emotions such as fear and confusion, mental-health events such as delusions or even a simple change of environment can set off a wandering episode that’s potentially dangerous, and frightening to all.

So it’s tempting when thinking about wandering prevention to focus on managing the triggers.  Yet while this can help, it’s equally—if not more—important to recognize the warning signs that wandering is likely to take place. They may come as a surprise to you.

1. Restlessness and pacing.
When seniors with cognitive impairment appear restless or pace around their environments, there may be a wandering episode in store.

2. Engaging in repetitive but unproductive tasks.
Repetitive behavior that appears productive but leads nowhere is also a warning sign. Examples of such actions are moving pots and pans from the cupboards then replacing them, rearranging household objects and returning them to their original location, and going through the motions of doing other chores or partaking in hobbies without results.

3. Having trouble locating familiar rooms.
This manifests with unsuccessful searches for the bathroom, dining room, bedroom or other spaces in a home where a senior has lived for decades, or in any other environment she or she would typically recognize.

4. Returning later than usual.
When a senior returns home later than his or her usual time from regular excursions such as walks, doctor’s appointments or social gatherings, caregivers should be on the alert.

5. Going to "work."
A senior on the verge of wandering off may attempt to go to work or participate in a professional event like a meeting or conference even if he or she has been retired for many years.

6. Looking for deceased family and friends.
Does a senior ask the whereabouts of family members and friends, including those who have passed on or moved away? This is another sign to watch for.

Beyond recognizing the warning signs, there are a few key preventative steps to take. First, family and caregivers should examine the structure of the senior’s day, tracking the times of day when restlessness and discomfort occur and making sure to be especially vigilant then.

It’s also important to make sure the senior is always comfortable, and that all of his or her needs have been met.  Is he or she too warm or too cold? Hungry? Uncomfortable? Does he or she need to use the bathroom? If the answer to any of these is yes, the situation should be remedied as soon as possible.

Environmental approaches, too, can be effective. Seniors can perceive a flat, black spot as a hole, for example, so placing a black carpet circle on the floor in front of a door can deter a senior from approaching the door. Murals can also be used to disguise doors as other household objects such as bookshelves so that seniors approaching them won’t recognize them or try to exit.

Technology like LivHOME Care Monitor™ can come in to play to prevent wandering by triggering alerts when doors and windows are opened. There are GPS tracking devices that can clip onto a senior’s watch or belt and individual alarms that can be placed on doors leadingout of the home.

But above all, the human factor—the watchful eyes of caregivers and family members who are familiar with the warning signs and can intervene proactively—will help prevent impaired seniors from wandering and its dangers.