What to Know About Wandering in People with Dementia

A potential symptom of Alzheimer’s disease, wandering behavior can stem from a search for safety and reassurance.

- Posted on Jun 14, 2019

A caregiver engaged in conversation with her loved one on a bench outside.

This article is based on information provided by Home Instead Senior Care.

Every morning, Owen put on his white coat and did his usual rounds, from patient to patient. He spoke carefully to each one, asking questions, taking their pulse and listening to their heartbeats with his stethoscope. 

Actually, though, Owen is an 86-year-old retired M.D. and his “patients” are the family members with whom he lives. Owen has Alzheimer’s, a brain disease that can take those who have it back to earlier days and surroundings.

Wandering is one of the potential symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. According to a leading authority on the issue, people who wander often are attempting to return to a familiar destination, such as a place they used to work, with a specific purpose in mind.

“A person may want to go back to a former job he or she had, even though it may no longer exist,” said Monica Moreno, director of Early-Stage Initiatives for the Alzheimer’s Association. “Someone may have a personal need that must be met. For example, that individual may be looking for the bathroom, but be unable to find it. So he or she goes searching and gets lost. There’s always a purpose and intent. It’s just a matter of identifying the triggers.”

Common triggers can range from what is known as “sundowning”, or tiredness and confusion at the end of the day, to an altered routine, such as a relocation from home to an assisted living facility.

How frequently someone wanders typically varies depending on what stage of Alzheimer’s the person is in. “I work with many individuals living in the early stage of the disease,” Moreno said. “Typically the challenge during this stage of the disease isn’t wandering, it’s getting lost. Perhaps it can be an individual who starts out to an appointment on a familiar route to see a long-time physician, and suddenly cannot remember how to get there. Early-stage Alzheimer’s disease tends to involve more disorientation, while the later stage may involve wandering to find where they want to go.”

Although reasons for the behavior vary, people who wander often are trying to find safety and reassurance because they may feel lost, abandoned or disoriented. If your loved one says he or she wants to “go home” or “go to work,” try responding in ways that focus on exploration and validation, rather than correcting the person. You might say, “We are staying here tonight. We are safe and I’ll be with you. We can go home in the morning after a good night’s rest.”

Alzheimer’s disease affects everyone differently, which makes wandering unpredictable and complicated, noted Moreno. Because of that unpredictability, it’s important for families to get an early diagnosis and put plans in place to help keep individuals safe and independent for as long as possible.

For more information, go to “10 Ways to Balance Independence and Safety When Caring for Someone who Might Wander.”

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