The Best Of…Keeping Tabs on Your Wandering Parent

Published August 20, 2008, All Pawtucket All The Time          

           With the graying of Rhode Island’s population, a growing number of aging baby boomers are now taking care of their elderly parents who reside in their homes.  Adult children are often juggling professional careers and family responsibilities while spending countless of hours each week making sure their elderly parents needs are taken care of such as getting them to doctor’s appointments, taking them grocery shopping, assisting in house hold chores, or bringing them to family events.

            In recent months this writer discovered several close friends are dealing with parents facing these very issues – perhaps compounded with early stages of dementia or Alzheimer’s.  Often times the grown children suffer in silence – balancing the daily burdens of their own lives – while steadfastly tending to their parents care and needs, a very time consuming task especially if the older parent is frail or becomes confused and wandering.                                                                                                                                                                                

 Wandering a Common Occurrence

            This “care giving” life-stage experience is not uncommon, especially with approximately 25,000 Rhode Islanders who are afflicted with Alzheimer’s.  According to Elizabeth Morancy, President of the Alzheimer’s Association, Rhode Island Chapter, about 70% of people with dementia reside at home in the community    She estimates that six out of 10 people with Alzheimer’s will “wander” to some degree.

            Morancy notes that “wandering” occurs when a person with dementia becomes missing – where an individual becomes lost after leaving their home.  The restless individual may actually leave having a purpose or goal in mind, maybe he or she might search for an item that was lost, look for a child, or try to fulfill a former job responsibility.

            “Even situations that seem harmless to us can become dangerous, even fatal to the Alzheimer’s person,” Morancy notes.  Because a confused person does not panic not realizing their dangerous predicament of walking onto a highway or into woods, a very dangerous even a very life threatening, situation occurs, she says.

The ABCs of Reducing Wandering

            According to Morancy, wandering can be reduced by following a few tips. Movement and exercise can reduce behavior, agitation and restlessness (causes for this negative behavior).  Make sure that all basic needs, such as toileting, nutrition and thirst, are met.  Involve the person with dementia in performing daily activities like folding laundry or making dinner.  Color-matching cloth over door knobs can effectively camouflage the hardware. A black rectangle on the floor placed inside the door way can become a visual barrier, keeping the wanderer inside.  By placing a mirror near a doorway, a reflection of the person’s face will often keep the individual from opening the door and leaving the house.   

             Even simple actions like rigging an alarm by hanging tin cans from a door with string or using door locks the confused person can not operate work effectively, too, Morancy says.

             Morancy adds that one of the most effective ways of reducing wandering is to register the person with Alzheimer’s or dementia in Alzheimer’s Association’s MedicAlert + Safe Return Program.  It operates through local police departments and other emergency responder agencies working with Alzheimer’s Association chapters across the country.  The government-funded initiative has a national information and photo database.  It operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with a toll free crisis line. .        

            Once registered, when a person with dementia wanders or becomes lost, a phone call immediately activates a community support network that works together to reunite the lost person with their caregivers.  Once the wandering individual is found, an identification product on the wanderer provides law officials with information to contact the caregiver.  The nearest Alzheimer’s Association office provides support during the rescue efforts.  Medical information is immediately available if needed.

             MedicAlert + Safe Return Program needs to be tweaked, say Morancy.  “The initiative is not yet pro-active. Although the registration helps identify the person who wears an identity bracelets or necklace or carries wallet identity card (noting an 800 toll free number) because the identity information enables caregivers to ultimately be contacted, this is just after the fact,” she says. “There is no universal system that will track down persons while they are lost.

             However, in other states, Project Lifesaver, administered by the local sheriff departments, utilizes a tracking mechanism.  However, its high cost decreases its use throughout the nation. .

             Initiatives like MedicAlert + Safe Return and Project Lifesaver have been instrumental in returning wanders to the safe home environments.  These programs are crucial to aging baby boomers who work hard to successfully keep their confused parent at home rather than to institutionalize them. The incidence of physical harm and death increases if a person is not found within a 24 hour period.

             Care giving can be a stressful chore.  Programs like MedicAlert + Safe Return can make it just a little easier.  For more information about this Program, call 800 272-3900.

             Herb Weiss is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer covering aging, medical and health care issues. The article was published in the August 20, 2008 issue of All Pawtucket All the Time.  He can be reached at