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Assistive Devices to Monitor a Wandering Dementia Patient

by Martha Stettinius, Dementia Expert
February 12, 2014

Question: My sister, who is diagnosed with dementia, has a tendency to wander alone. Are there any assistive devices to track her down when she does this?

Answer: This is an important question, as 6 in 10 people who are living with Alzheimer’s disease or another type of cognitive impairment tend to “wander,” i.e., walk off in search of something, either pacing around their home or out the door down the road. This wandering can happen in any stage of dementia, even in the early stages.

Although the term “wandering” implies a lack of purpose, people with a cognitive impairment may very well have a purpose in mind. Even if we can guess their intention (such as to find the bathroom or to head off to a job they had 40 years ago), we need a way to protect them; as caregivers we can’t be everywhere at every moment.

Wandering can present a danger even in some elder care facilities such as assisted living facilities that are not “secure” (locked). (If you consider assisted living for your sister, you might want to look for a secure “memory care” assisted living facility for people who wander and need a higher level of care.) When my mother was in a rehabilitation center temporarily for a fractured pelvis, she headed toward the unlocked front doors so often that the staff had to place a small alarm around her ankle.

Programs and devices to locate a person who has wandered:

The following programs and devices are offered through the Alzheimer's Association to assist in the monitoring and return of people who wander:

•    MedicAlert® + Alzheimer's Association Safe Return®: A nationwide identification program. You receive a pendant or bracelet to be worn by the person with dementia, on which is inscribed the person’s identification information and the toll-free number to call in emergencies.

•    Comfort Zone® and Comfort Zone Check-In®:  These devices allow families to monitor a person's whereabouts remotely using Web-based location services.  The person with dementia carries or wears an electronic GPS tracking device (a pager or wrist-worn device). ComfortZone includes MedicAlert + SafeReturn.

What to Do If a Person with Dementia Goes Missing:

If a person with dementia disappears, search the immediate area for no more than 15 minutes, then call 911 to expand your search. Alert the police to the fact that the person has dementia, ask them to start a Silver Alert on local media, and if the person is on foot, ask the police to bring search and rescue dogs.  Have a photo on hand to share with the police. Ninety-four percent of people who wander are found within 1.5 miles of where they disappeared, but it’s important to start the search right away.

Ways to Prevent Wandering

For information about ways to prevent wandering, visit the Alzheimer’s Association website.  Keep in mind, though, that even if you implement each of their suggestions to prevent wandering, no technique is foolproof. A program or device such as those listed above may offer an additional layer of protection, and give you some peace of mind.

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Martha Stettinius was a “sandwich generation” caregiver for 8 years for her mother with dementia, and is the author of the book “Inside the Dementia Epidemic: A Daughter’s Memoir.” An editor with a master’s in English Education from Columbia University, she blogs for and serves as a volunteer representative for New York State for the Caregiver Action Network.

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