Roundup: Where to Turn When Dementia Patients Wander

JUNE 01, 2008
Jeannette Y. Wick, RPh, MBA, FASCP

Ms. Wick is a senior clinical research pharmacist at the National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland. The views expressed are those of the author and not those of any government agency.

Wandering is a troublesome—and common—behavior in dementia patients. Up to half of dementia patients wander.1-4 Despite the numerous ways available to prevent wandering, these patients sometimes "elope" from their homes or nursing facilities. Twenty percent of people with dementia who leave their living situations in this dangerous way will die.1,5 Some wandering appears goal-oriented, but wanderers' travel paths are often unrelated to their planned destination. Some wanderers elope with a buddy, and some successfully acquire transportation. Often, wanderers get lost.

Researchers recognize 4 specific types of wandering:

  1. Direct travel is goal-directed, with either a real or imaginary purpose, like going home.
  2. Lapping is wandering in circular patterns.
  3. Pacing is back-and-forth movement in a confined area.
  4. Random travel describes haphazard movement from one location to another; these patients often try doorknobs and exits.6
Common Characteristics of Wanderers
  • Wanderers will use their remaining mental and physical resources, sometimes successfully and sometimes not
  • They can be expected to react in their usual way to change and will take the path of least resistance. When elevations change, the path of least resistance is usually downhill.
  • Wanderers usually persevere until they become trapped, with 63% found in creeks, in drainage areas, or caught in briars and bushes; <1% respond to shouts or calls from rescuers
  • Most are found within one-half mile of their residence, 89% are found within a mile, and they may be fearful or regressing
  • Wanderers may ignore or misunderstand searchers' efforts. Searchers may walk close to the wanderer without seeing him or her, and then expand the search.
  • Adapted from reference 6, 8, 9, and 17.

    Wandering severity is a function of the patient's cognitive impairment, spatial disorientation, and behavioral disturbances.3,4 Among people with dementia, aberrant behaviors and clothing that is at odds with the situation are common. For staff and visitors, the wanderer's appearance can be deceptive. The successful wanderer (one who evades containment) often looks like a visitor in a health care facility (perhaps carrying a purse or wearing a jacket or hat); these patients are helped by well-meaning individuals who open doors for them.

    Sadly, wandering is often the reason families decide that a loved one must enter a long-term care facility or other strictly supervised setting. Falls, fractures, and serious or life-threatening complications are common outcomes for wanderers.7 After 24 hours, 46% of wanderers are found dead, usually from environmental stressors like exposure or drowning. Only 20% of those located after 72 hours are found alive.8,9 Wanderers are also more likely to have sleep disturbances, be prescribed antipsychotics, lose weight, and be victims of abuse than nonwanderers.10,11

    Risk Factors

    The best indication of a future problem with wandering is a past history of the same.12 People close to patients with dementia must listen carefully for clues that suggest potential wandering behavior. Dementia patients, for example, may talk about leaving their place of residence or engaging in things they used to do (eg, "I need to go to work"), especially after a change in living arrangements. Wandering seems to increase when dementia patients are placed in unfamiliar environments, left alone, become more disoriented than usual, or verbalize about going somewhere.

    Pharmacists should note that medication changes also seem to increase wandering behaviors.13 In addition, patients taking neuroleptic medications and experiencing akathisia (motor restlessness) seem to be more apt to wander.14 Dementia patients who have histories of or are being treated for depression, anxiety, or schizophrenia tend to wander more than others.10,11


    Wandering is stressful and frightening for caregivers, and they often ask for medication to calm the patient's restlessness. It is, however, considered a nonaggressive behavior in most cases and is not considered a behavioral symptom that should be addressed with medication.15 The use of antipsychotic medications is inappropriate, unless the wandering causes a danger to the patient or others; they should be used only if the behavior is persistent, unrelated to preventable conditions, or impairs functional capacity.3,5 Used under other conditions, behavior-altering medications are considered chemical restraints, and restraining patients physically often increases agitation or injury.4 Trials of antipsychotics alone or with divaproex indicate that these drugs do not improve nonaggressive behaviors like wandering.11,15,16

    In lieu of medication, caregivers can use other interventions. These must always include some physical environment modifications. Exits must be locked and sometimes disguised. Wanderers are notorious for following paths, so paths that are circular and lead back to the house or nursing unit are preferred. For obvious reasons, paths leading to docks or away from the home or nursing facility must be blocked.4 Marking doors (eg, to the bathroom) with large signs can reduce the need for the wanderer to search. Removing items that suggest travel, like hats and coats, is prudent, too.13 Childproof safety devices come in handy when a dementia patient is a wanderer.

    Many nursing homes now offer specialized units for wanderers. They monitor patients electronically using bracelets, door alarms, and closed-circuit monitors. Some of these tools are available for use at home, too.

    Safe Return, Compassionate Re-entry

    Everyone who knows of and comes in contact with these patients must be told of their propensity to wander. Before it is needed, people close to the patient should develop a rescue plan in case the wanderer is successful. Several tendencies of wanderers can shed light on how they are apt to proceed (Table 6,8,9,17).

    Caregivers will need to contact first responders (police, fire, or other agencies) and always keep recent photographs of the patient for identification purposes. Caregivers should be prepared to search areas close to the patient's residence over again, even after the search area expands. Sometimes, it becomes necessary or helpful to notify the media, but only after the authorities have been notified and if the resident's life is in danger.


    Not all wandering is considered problematic; for some patients, it is a harmless way to keep active and exercised if it occurs in a controlled setting. For those patients who wander to danger, however, it is a serious concern. Pharmacists should be prepared to counsel caregivers about medication and its relationship to wandering, either as an akasthisia-inducing cause of wandering or an ineffective cure. Many communities now train first responders to understand people with dementia and their wandering patterns better. If yours does, consider joining the team.

    Information to Obtain About Patients at Risk for Wandering

    Caregivers who compile the information listed below will be more prepared to reduce patients' anxiety and discomfort by addressing patients by their preferred name and offering comforting reminders.

    • What does the patient enjoy, and what causes anxiety?
    • What names are used to address the patient?
    • What topics does the patient enjoy discussing?
    • Does the patient respond better to women or men?
    • Do uniforms or any other traits frighten the patient?
    • Who is the patient's best friend?
    • Did the patient work or live in the area?
    • If the patient recently lost a pet, what kind was it?
    • What item does the patient always have on hand?

    Adapted from reference 12.


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