Alzheimer’s in the Winter

By Taylor Viers 

Wandering behavior in individuals diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease is fairly common. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 6 in 10 individuals with the disease wander at least once and many do so repeatedly. During the harsh and cold winter months, this behavior puts those struggling with the disease in a very vulnerable position with greater risks which can weigh heavily on caregivers and families. Hypothermia and frostbite are extremely dangerous for those who wander off without telling anyone where they’re going or realizing what they’re doing. Pamela Myers, program director for the Alzheimer’s Association of Northwest Ohio Chapter says that “even in 50 degree temperatures, too much core and limb heat can be lost, and in freezing temperatures that body heat is lost rapidly”.

Meyers also points out that “Alzheimer’s disease causes people to lose their ability to recognize familiar places or faces, and it’s common for a person living with dementia to wander or become lost or confused about their location, even in the early stages of the disease”. Below we’ve outlined 5 tips from the Alzheimer’s Association to help keep your loved ones safe during the winter months where wandering can lead to potentially deadly consequences. 

1) Watch for signs of wandering

Common signs that a person living with Alzheimer’s or another dementia is as risk of wandering include:

  • Returning from a regular walk or drive later than usual. 
  • Forgetting how to get to places that used to be familiar.
  • Talking about fulfilling former obligations, such as going to work.
  • Trying or wanting to “go home” even when already at home.

2) Reduce wandering risks

To help reduce some of the risks of wandering:

  • Identify the time of day the person is most likely to wander and plan activities and exercises to do during that time to help reduce anxiety, agitation, and restlessness (For those who experience “sundowning”, this may start in the early evening).
  • Consider reducing (not eliminating) liquids up to two hours before bedtime to reduce the need to wake up to use the bathroom during the night.
  • Reassure the person if they feel lost, abandoned, or disoriented that they’re safe and at home.

3) Safeguard the home

As Alzheimer’s progresses and the risk for wandering increases, it’s important to assess your individual situation to see which of these safety measures may work best to help prevent wandering:

  • Install warning bells above doors or use monitoring devices that signal when a door is opened.
  • Place a pressure-sensitive mat in front of the door or at the person’s bedside to alert you to movement.
  • Use safety gates or brightly colored netting to prevent access to stairs or the outdoors.
  • Enroll in a MedicAlert membership plan with wandering support that helps first responders reconnect individuals living with dementia who experience a medical emergency or wander with their families and caregivers.

4) Plan ahead for emergencies

Families should also crease a plan of action for if a loved one does go missing:

  • Ask neighbors, friends, and family to call if they see the person wandering, lost, or dressed inappropriately.
  • Keep a recent, close-up photo of the person on hand to give the police or searchers.
  • Create a comprehensive list of places the person might wander to such as past jobs, former homes, places of worship, or a favorite restaurant.

5) Take immediate action when wandering does occur

In the occurrence that wandering does happen, consider the following:

  • When looking for a lost person, consider whether the individual is right or left handed. Wandering patterns generally follow the direction of the dominant hand.
  • Begin by looking in the surrounding vicinity. Many individuals who wander are found within 1.5 miles of where they disappeared.
  • If the person is not found within 15 minutes, call 911 to file a missing person’s report. Inform the authorities that the person has dementia.

The holidays are a stressful time already, but taking care of loved ones who wander can be overwhelming. There are always resources and support groups to help you not feel so alone in the difficult process. 

Remember that it’s vital to pay extra attention to wandering individuals living with Alzheimer’s disease in these cold months, so always be vigilant of your surroundings. Emergency wandering response service can be obtained 24/7 by contacting the Alzheimer’s Association Helpline at 800-272-3900.

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