The Brain’s GPS: Why Alzheimer’s Patients Wander

Janet, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, lives at the Juniper House Memory Care unit in Oregon. She is among her unit’s 16 residents who have exhibited the symptoms of Sundown Syndrome, where individuals with Alzheimer’s get agitated, disoriented, and restless late in the day. Residents, including Janet, have attempted to get through the door of the facility to wander, but luckily they no longer try.

Juniper House is one of several facilities who hired an artist to paint a mural on their door to keep memory-care patients from leaving. Their door, in particular, boasts a beautiful outdoor scene with green lush grass, flowers, and a pond. Patients who attempt to leave remain indoors because they already feel like they are experiencing the outdoors by looking at the picturesque mural! Other facilities have disguised doors as bookcases or turned them into murals also, and it has worked quite well.

“A door is a big target for someone with memory impairment,” said Alanna Thompson, health services coordinator at Juniper House. She said, “(s)undowning is a phenomenon with Alzheimer’s and dementia. From mid-afternoon to early evening, some of the residents get anxious or aggressive and start to wander. A lot of times, residents tried to get out that door. It’s called “exit seeking” behavior, a strong desire to leave the building and wander.”

The Scientific Reason Why Alzheimer’s Patients Wander

Alzheimer’s is a disease that can have devastating effects, not only on patients but on people around them as well. Loss of memory could make Alzheimer’s patients do things they would not normally do. Wandering is one of those things, and a new study may help explain it.

Karen E. Duff, Ph.D., professor of Pathology and Cell Biology at the Columbia University Medical Center, recently led a study that focused on what happens in the brain of Alzheimer’s patients that makes them wander.

Alzheimer’s patients are generally found to have protein plaques in their brain. These protein plaques slowly build up and. in time, cause disruption in the brain’s function, which leads to memory loss. A buildup of a certain protein in the brain, known as tau protein, causes Alzheimer’s patients to get lost.
An excess of tau protein could lead to disruption of the brain’s spatial function. By researching lab mice, it was noted that the excessive tau protein is likely the reason Alzheimer’s patients wander.

According to researchers, these findings could be used as a basis to develop treatments, such as laser therapy and deep brain stimulation, that could target and correct the imbalance produced by excessive tau protein.

How to Prevent Wandering

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 60% of those with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia will wander, and if a person is not found within 24 hours, up to half of individuals who wander will suffer serious injury or death.

As you are aware, no one can watch another person every second of every day. We’re only human, and even the best and most dedicated caregiver can’t fully prevent wandering. But by following some of the tips below, you can boost your loved one’s safety. What’s more, you can feel a lot more confident and a lot less anxious.

Secure Your Home: Consider contacting a professional locksmith, security company, or home improvement professional to implement safety and prevention procedures in your home. You may find it is necessary to prevent your loved one from slipping away unnoticed by installing secure dead bolt locks that require keys on both sides, a home security alarm system, inexpensive battery-operated alarms on doors, fencing your yard, adhering printable STOP SIGNS to doors, windows and other exits, etc.

Consider a Tracking Device: Check with local law enforcement for Project Lifesaver, MedicAlert, or LoJak SafetyNet services. These tracking devices are worn on the wrist or ankle and locate the individual through radio frequency. Various GPS tracking systems are also available.

Bracelets or other jewelry with radio transmitters can also be a big help. Some are short-range and designed so that caregivers can monitor the person themselves. Some sound an alarm on both the bracelet and a base unit when the person gets too far away. Others are services that charge a monthly fee and use devices to pinpoint the person’s location. The company can track a wandering person and work with local law enforcement, or the organization Project LifeSaver, to get your loved one back to you.

Make sure the person has an ID on them: Medical ID bracelets include your name, telephone number, and other important information. They may state that your loved one has dementia. If your loved one will not wear a bracelet or necklace, you could also consider sewing identification into your loved one’s jacket or other clothing they commonly wear. Another option: temporary tattoos. They’re available in kits and give basic information about the person’s health condition, along with space for your phone number.

Alert your neighbors: It is recommended that caregivers have a brief visit with all neighbors to introduce their loved one or provide a photograph. Tell them that your loved one is prone to wandering and that they should let you know if they see him or her out alone. Give neighbors a number where you can be reached. The more explicit you are, the better – many people are naturally inclined not to get involved. Knowing your neighbors can help reduce the risks associated with wandering.

Dress your loved one in bright clothing: If it’s reasonable and your loved one doesn’t mind, consider dressing him or her in clothing that’s easy-to-see from a distance.

Focus on good sleep: Some conditions linked with wandering are associated with poor sleep quality. Wandering itself could result from sleeplessness. So do what you can to practice good sleep hygiene with your loved one. As much as you are able, get him or her on a regular schedule of going to bed and waking up. To help prevent wandering, reduce napping during the day and cut out caffeinated drinks.

Emergencies: What to Do if Your Loved One Wanders

If your efforts to prevent wandering haven’t worked and your loved one has wandered off, what should you do? Experts say that the first thing you should do is call 911 to alert the authorities. If your loved one is registered with organizations like Project Lifesaver or the Alzheimer’s Association Safe Return program, you can call them, too. Once you’ve done that, you can start looking yourself.

If you’re a caregiver for a loved one with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, we urge you to plan for your future and for the future care needs of your loved one. If you have a loved one who needs long-term care now or may in the future due to Alzheimer’s or any other type of dementia, please contact us. We help protect the family’s hard-earned assets while maintaining your loved one’s comfort, dignity, and quality of life by ensuring eligibility for critical government benefits such as Medicaid and Veterans Aid and Attendance. To make an appointment for a consultation, call us:

Fairfax Elder Law: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg Elder Law: 540-479-1435
Rockville Elder Law: 301-519-8041
DC Elder Law: 202-587-2797

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.