DAYTON — The “sundowning” confusion that increases during the winter months in individuals living with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias can also lead to a higher risk of wandering off and getting lost. During the colder winter months, wandering can be especially perilous.
Alzheimer’s disease can cause affected individuals to lose their ability to recognize familiar places and faces. An estimated 60% of people living with dementia will wander at least once; many do so repeatedly. If they are not found within 24 hours, up to half of wandering individuals will suffer serious injury or death. The cold and increased dark hours of winter cause an increased risk.
“Dangerous wandering behaviors can be one of the main reasons first responders find themselves interacting with individuals living with a form of dementia,” said Ohio Public Policy Director Trey Addison. “These interactions can go badly if emergency personnel are not equipped to deal with the situation.”
“The Alzheimer’s Association in Ohio has worked with our state legislators to put through House Bill 23 to provide dementia training to our police, firefighters, state troopers and EMS personnel so that they are prepared to identify signs of Alzheimer’s or dementia and are equipped to provide these individuals and their families with the care that they deserve. We are thrilled that this bill has been approved by the entire Ohio Senate and will become law,” continued Addison.
Signs a person living with Alzheimer’s or another dementia is at risk of wandering include returning from a regular walk or drive later than usual; forgetting how to get to familiar places; talking about fulfilling former obligations, such as going to work; trying or wanting to “go home,” even when they are at home; and having difficulty locating familiar places, such as the bathroom, bedroom or dining room. Individuals who are wandering typically have a destination or purpose — for instance, going to the bathroom or going to work — but disorientation can cause them to get lost.
“Wandering is dangerous at any time of the year, but especially during the winter, when it gets darker earlier and the cold increases the risk to your loved ones,” said Annemarie Barnett, executive director of the Alzheimer’s Association Miami Valley and Greater Cincinnati Chapters.
The following tips can help reduce the risk of wandering. For those experiencing sundowning who are more likely to wander in the evening, plan activities to do during that time that may reduce restlessness.
If the person is no longer driving, remove access to car keys — a person living with dementia may not wander by foot, but the person may forget that he or she can no longer drive. Avoid busy places that are confusing and can cause disorientation, such as shopping malls.
Place deadbolts out of the line of sight, either high or low, on exterior doors and use night lights throughout the home. Install warning bells above doors or use a monitoring device that signals when a door is opened.
Store items that may trigger a person’s instinct to leave, such as coats, hats, pocketbooks, keys and wallets. Do not leave the person alone in a car. Keep a recent, close-up photo of the person on hand to give to police, should the need arise.
Create a list of places the person might wander to, such as past jobs, former homes, places of worship or a favorite restaurant.
If a person with dementia does wander away from the home and can’t immediately be located, take the following action. Start search efforts immediately, including in less-traveled areas of the house. Consider whether the individual is left- or right-handed — wandering patterns generally follow the direction of the dominant hand.
Begin by looking in the surrounding vicinity — many individuals who wander are found within 1.5 miles of where they disappeared. If the person is not found within 15 minutes, call 911 to file a missing person’s report. Inform the authorities that the person has dementia and is a “vulnerable adult.”
“Prevention is an important tool, especially during the winter months,” Barnett said. “As much as you’re able, it’s a good idea to incorporate these recommendations to reduce the likelihood that your loved one will wander.”
In 2021, there were 421,000 caregivers caring for 220,000 Ohioans age 65 and older living with Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association “2022 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures.” The number of people living with Alzheimer’s is expected to increase to 250,000 by 2025.
Those concerned about themselves or a loved one can contact the Alzheimer’s Association Miami Valley Chapter office at 937-291-3332 to schedule a care consultation with a social worker who can offer connections to local resources that can help. The Alzheimer’s Association’s Helpline can be reached 24/7 at 800-272-3900. For more safety resources, visit alz.org/safety.