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How People with Dementia Behave When They Get Lost


Updated: December 15, 2006

Understanding Wandering Behavior & Alzheimer's Disease

People with Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia, can wander away from their home and the prevalence of such wandering incidents is expected to grow as aging populations increase. A research paper by Robert J. Koester states resources are required for about 31,000 incidents of critical wandering a year.

A critical wanderer is someone with dementia who has wandered away of their own free-will from their caregiver(s). It causes worry and stress and presents local authorities with special problems.

Someone with Alzheimer's is disorientated and unable to judge potentially dangerous places and situations. Time is critical when a life is at risk. People suffering from severe Alzheimer's are more at risk and the incidence of critical wandering increases.

Critical Insights into Wandering Behavior
Koester's research provides useful insights into Alzheimer's wandering behavior. People with Alzheimer's leave their own residence or nursing home and start to wander along roads. The patient is usually located (89% of all cases) within one mile (1.2 km) of the point last seen. If the person is not on the road itself (14%), they are usually in a creek/drainage (28%), and/or caught in briars/bushes (33%). The person is usually found wandering a short distance from a road; Median 33 yards. The majority of patients succumb to the environment (hypothermia, dehydration) and require evacuation (35%) or are deceased (19%). Moreover:

  • They will not cry out for help or respond to shouts.

  • They will not leave many physical clues.

  • They may attempt to travel to a former residence or wander to a favorite location.

  • They may have a previous history of wandering.

  • Coexisting medical problems that limit mobility are common.
    Robert J.Koester

    Search and Rescue response to Alzheimer's wandering
    An understanding of wandering behavior in Alzheimer's, allows families, healthcare facilities, local authorities, police, search and rescue sevices to maximise their efforts within the most effective perimeters. Nursing and residential homes sould search the building and grounds and repeat the search every few hours. The wanderers previous home sites or places of special meaning should be searched and areas of heavy bushes and briars, 100 yards parallel to roadways, need special attention as someone with Alzheimer's can become entangled in them and not be able to make a judgement on how to get out. Local authority use of trackers and tracking dog teams along roadways and drainage and stream areas,looking for signs along raodways and trails, sweeps of areas can be better tailored be increase the chances of finding someone who has Alzheimer's as quickly as possible.

    Further Research

    Koester says that further research into the wandering behavior of people with Alzheimer's will further to contribute to the body of knowlege that can make searches more effective. It means less loss of life, fewer hours of worry and torment for families, and of course less aimless and dangerous wandering behavior.

    Adapted from New Research & Perspectives By Robert J. Koester M.S.
    Virginia Department of Emergency Management
    Appalachian Search & Rescue Conference

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