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Home Safety and Dementia

When you worry about a loved one leaving the house

Saftey wandering

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En español | One of the most common safety concerns for people with dementia is that they will leave the house and get lost. In my 35 years of caregiving experience, no one I have worked with who has dementia just wanders aimlessly. In their minds there's a reason: They are looking for something or someone, they need to be somewhere, they want to do something, or they are scared.

We just may not understand what it is, and they may not be able to communicate it.

Regardless, we need to be prepared just in case this happens.

Some tips:

1. Install alarms and locks as needed. Consider technology that will alert you that your loved ones are up and about before they leave the home, like simple door alarms, audio and video monitors, floor mat or seat pad alarms, extra door locks that are difficult for them to open (ensure you can exit in an emergency situation, though) or programmable digital door locks. Share the code only with those you trust to access the home. You can even program the locks so certain people can come in only during certain hours.

2. Make sure they can be identified. Be sure your loved ones have some form of identification on them, and keep in mind they may take off certain items of clothing or lose their wallets. Multiple forms of identification, emergency contact numbers and disclosure of their medical diagnosis of dementia are a good idea, including an ID bracelet or pendant, identification inside their clothing and in their wallet.

3. Use GPS tracking. If your loved one has a cellphone, ensure there is a GPS tracking system installed that you can access if you can't find them or you need to track their progress when they travel alone. You can also attach GPS trackers to clothing, keys, wallet, car or just about anywhere. If they wear a personal emergency response system (PERS or emergency medical alert), consider one that has GPS capability anywhere — not just in the home — so they can be tracked wherever they go if they become lost.

4. Pay attention to exits and safety hazards in the yard and garage. People who have dementia and visual/perceptual impairments may walk into glass doors, so place stickers on them. Fence in and add locked gates to the yard and, separately, the swimming pool. Monitor safety of pathways and steps, including for rain, snow and ice; ensure adequate lighting. If the grill is a concern, lock the cover and access to gas tanks and all fire starters. Check the garage for safety hazards like gasoline, tools or ladders, and block access if they pose a danger for your loved ones.

5. Assess whether driving is safe. Many people drive for a while after a dementia diagnosis. If your loved ones are still driving, be sure to constantly monitor their judgment, safety and driving skills. Talk with their doctor and check out AARP's We Need to Talk online seminar about discussing hanging up the keys with loved ones.

Be mindful that your loved ones know that when they stop driving their independence is threatened. They may fear isolation, so be sure to have alternative transportation options available. Some caregivers have to hide the car keys or remove the car from the home to prevent their loved ones from driving.

6. Note any access to bicycles, lawn mowers, tractors, golf carts. Keep in mind your loved ones might decide it's a good idea to ride one of these vehicles (especially if they are no longer driving), so be sure to monitor their ability to use them safely and block access if they can't.

Remember that abilities and needs can vary greatly among individuals with dementia, and safety concerns can change as the disease progresses. You'll want to continually assess your loved ones' risk for getting lost or injured if they leave the home, and do whatever you can to minimize the chance that they'll put themselves in danger. 

Amy Goyer is AARP's family and caregiving expert and author of Juggling Life, Work and Caregiving. Connect with Amy on amygoyer.comFacebookTwitter, in AARP's Online Community and in the AARP Facebook Family Caregivers Group.