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 and work experience, no one I have encountered who is living with dementia just “wanders” aimlessly. In their minds, there’s a reason: They are looking for something or someone; they believe they should be somewhere (work, home, picking up a child after school, etc.); they want to do something (I once lost an adult day-care client because he wanted to go fishing); they have an unmet need (hungry, thirsty, tired, lonely, etc.); or they are scared. We may not understand what they are thinking or why they are confused — and they may not be able to communicate it.
In more than a decade of caregiving for my dad, who had Alzheimer’s, he disappeared twice. Both times, he was legitimately looking for someone.
First, I was in a doctor’s exam room with Mom, and he was in the waiting room with my niece. She wasn’t paying attention, and he went to look for Mom. He went right out the back door (which someone had left open) and through two parking lots looking for us. Thankfully, I realized he was gone and figured out where he went quickly and spotted him in the distance.
The second time, my niece was visiting my parents at their senior community and decided to wait for her mother to pick her up at the entrance to the community. Dad got worried about whether she had been picked up and walked out to look for her. When he didn’t see her (she had been picked up), he went outside the entrance and up to the corner of a major road; then he couldn’t figure out how to get back home. Fortunately, a neighbor driving by saw him asking stopped cars for help, recognized him and brought him home.
It’s hard to express the sheer terror I felt in both situations. We were extremely lucky in these instances and I put more safeguards in place when they happened. Now there are even more readily available safety options to help. Even if we don’t think our loved ones could get lost, we all need to be prepared.
Here are some steps you can take to lower the risk:
1. Install alarms and alerts.
Consider gadgets and technology that will alert you that your loved ones are up and about before they leave the home, such as audio and video monitors; floor mat or bed/chair pad alarms; motion-sensor alarms (in the home, near the door — inside and outside — by the driveway); or simple stick-on door chime alarms. If your security system has the option, set the alarm/chime to go off every time a door is opened. Some devices are designed specifically for those with dementia, such as a waterproof stick-on patch you can apply on the back of a person that has a transmitter — if the person gets too far away, it relays an alert to you via a small portable receiver. Even a simple motion-sensor light under the bed can alert you when your loved one is getting out of bed.