Alzheimer's Foundation of America

Foundation of America

Protecting Individuals with Dementia from Wandering During the Winter

(January 26, 2023)—Wandering is a very common and potentially dangerous behavior among individuals living with dementia.  It is of particularly great concern in areas where freezing temperatures, ice, and snow create additional safety hazards. To help families protect their loved ones living with dementia this winter, the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America (AFA) is providing tips to reduce the chances of wandering, and prepare care partners to respond quickly if their loved one is missing.

“Every family care partner wants to keep their loved one safe, which is why it’s important to take steps to reduce the risks associated with wandering. During the winter, it’s especially important for families living in areas affected by cold weather, snow, and ice,” said Jennifer Reeder, LCSW, AFA’s Director of Educational and Social Services. “Being proactive by understanding and addressing the reasons someone may wander, while also having a plan in place in case of an emergency, are the best ways to protect the person’s safety and quality of life.”

Tips for families:

Address the motivation for wandering. There can be many reasons why someone with dementia wants to walk outdoors.  It may provide a feeling of purposefulness, excitement, or pleasure. Wandering can also be a response to excessive stimuli, triggered by the need to get away from noises and people.  It could be an expression of an unmet need (i.e., hungry, thirsty, a need to use the bathroom). Identify consistent and sustainable ways to support these experiences in a safe environment.  You might try: creating walking paths around the home with visual cues and stimulating objects; engaging the person in simple tasks; offering stimulating and enjoyable activities (i.e., exercise, music, crafts). Ensuring basic needs are met can reduce the chances of wandering.

Safeguard the home. Facilitate safe movement by avoiding clutter and eliminating tripping hazards. Be mindful of how objects like car keys, jackets, and purses might trigger the person to leave suddenly. Install electronic chimes or doorbells on doors so someone is alerted if the individual tries to exit. Consider utilizing a smart doorbell with an app that can notify you when someone is entering or exiting the home.  

Be aware of your loved one’s patterns. Know what times of the day may be more activating than others, and try to provide stimulating activities during that time. Encourage healthy sleep habits to reduce the chances of the person leaving during the middle of the night. If your loved one does wander, keep a record of their patterns (frequency, duration, time of day, etc.) to help guide you in the future.  

Develop a safety plan. Keep a list of places the person may go (i.e., previous home or place of employment, favorite spots around town), a recent close-up photo, and medical information readily accessible to give to first responders if needed. Maintain a list of people to contact if the person goes missing and ask neighbors to call you if they see the person out on their own. See if your community has a safety program for families affected by dementia, such as Project Lifesaver, which allows you to voluntarily enroll your loved one to receive locating technology which first responders can activate if the person goes missing. To the greatest extent possible, utilize input from the person when developing the plan.

AFA’s Helpline, staffed entirely by licensed social workers who are specifically trained in dementia care, can provide additional information about wandering prevention tips. The Helpline is available seven days a week by phone (866-232-8484), text message (646-586-5283), and web chat (click the blue and white icon in the lower corner of this page).