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Why Do Some Nursing Home Residents Wander?

It’s something all of us have experienced, you’re in a group of friends when suddenly everyone’s phone begins giving off alerts. You know that one of two things that have happened, either a child or a senior citizen is missing. While it makes sense to have alert systems for children who have gone missing, the need for a similar senior citizen system may not be as evident to most people. However, anyone who has a family member with dementia or Alzheimer’s will tell you that it’s necessary. This article will explain why some senior citizens and nursing home residents wander and become lost.

It’s sometimes said that every solution creates a new problem, and an example of this can be seen with aging-related issues. Many Americans are living longer lives due to advances in medicine. However, this also means people are living long enough to experience age-related cognitive decline or develop conditions like Alzheimer’s Disease. 

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, six in 10 people with dementia will wander. Because patients with dementia or Alzheimer’s can have trouble remembering names, addresses and other details, they can become disoriented, even in familiar places. This means that seniors who experience cognitive decline can end up wandering the halls of a nursing home or even the house they’ve lived in for decades. 

Cognitive decline is usually a gradual process and there are warning signs family members can watch for to know if older family members are becoming a greater risk for wandering. Some early warning signs include: returning from a regular walk or drive later than usual; forgetting the route to familiar places; talking about fulfilling former obligations, like going to work or picking up kids from school; expressing a desire to “go home,” even when at home; and becoming nervous or anxious in crowded areas, such as shopping malls or restaurants. If an older relative begins to display these behaviors, it’s time to start thinking about ways to mitigate the risk. 

The threat of wandering can be extremely worrying for at-home caregivers. There’s always the risk that a patient can wander off in the middle of the night or get lost during a trip to the mall. One way to prevent wandering is to make sure the home and property are secured. Nursing homes prevent patients from wandering by securing areas with locks that patients can’t open without assistance. Caregivers can also add locks for cabinets where medication is kept (to prevent patients from accidentally taking extra doses) or locking the front gate so they can’t wander off in the middle of the night. 

There is a delicate balancing act that occurs when restricting access of seniors citizens. One issue to keep in mind is safety. Locking doors so patents can’t wander is understandable, but if prevents escape during a fire or an emergency, then the protection could end up doing more harm than good. This is why many facilities have emergency doors that are easy to use in an emergency but will sound an alarm, alerting the staff if the door was opened when it wasn’t supposed to be. 

It’s tempting to think that wandering seniors isn’t a big problem, but every year, there are hundreds of silver alerts issued for missing seniors in Florida. While many of the seniors involved in a Silver Alert are found in the same city they were last reported in, there are several examples of cases where missing seniors have turned up in different cities and counties.

The issue of wandering seniors will only become more pressing with time. The increase in the number of people who live longer will lead to an increase in the number of patients with issues related to dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, one in three seniors dies with Alzheimer’s Disease or another form of dementia, which is higher than the rates for breast cancer and prostate cancer combined. It’s estimated that on average a new person develops Alzheimer’s every 65 seconds. This means finding ways to mitigate the risk of wandering seniors will become even more important in the future. 

For more advice for caregivers, including tools for selecting the best nursing home for a loved one, take a look at the Caregiver Guide from Steve Watrel, P.A