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Why Wandering in Dementia Shouldn’t Get Such a Bad Rap

Old man

Wanderlust: A strong desire to travel or wander (Wikipedia).

Wandering is a natural human behavior. Our minds wander. Our bodies wander. There is something innately comforting about aimlessness. Wandering is a way of letting go of organized thinking. It is also a way to let ourselves be interested in the stimulation we may randomly encounter.

Wandering is an opportunity for engagement in sensory experiences. We all do it.

Meandering along a shoreline. “The sounds of the waves is so calming.”

Browsing through a bookstore. “God I love the smell of books.”

Going for a drive to nowhere in particular. “I like the thrum of the open road and winding through the colorful countryside .”

It is also how we get a new perspective on an issue, or get a handle on a troubling thought. The physical act of wandering is one way to sort stuff out.

So imagine if you had disorganized thinking due to a disease process, and an inability to remember where you were, or fear about your current situation because it just made no sense to you. You might get the urge to check things out. Or crave a sensory experience that comforted you.

Wandering is a way of managing stress and sorting out excess thoughts and emotions, for both the cognitively intact and the cognitively impaired. It is also a mechanism for satisfying a curiosity or a desire to experience something new.

So why to we limit the cognitively impaired from this perfectly natural activity

Wandering is not elopement. To elope is to run away. For people with dementia, elopement has a purpose and an objective- to go home, to go to work, to get out of here. Wandering does not.

Wandering is leisurely and casual. The aimless nature of wandering is what makes it such a powerful tool for stress management- there are no extra demands placed on the brain to meet any objective. It’s just “being… in motion”.

Wandering and elopement can both be dangerous for a cognitively impaired individual who is unable to anticipate consequences or recognize hazards in the environment. And it can be an exhausting behavior for caregivers to oversee.

Here are a few suggestions to make wandering a safe and healthy opportunity for sensory experiences:

  1. Contain the environment. A fenced in backyard, a courtyard, a hallway or room.
  2. Make it interesting. A person with dementia will not wander too far if the environment is interesting enough to keep them close.   Hands-on activities are key. Boxes with trinkets, a closet filled with treasures, textures and visual interests on the walls.
  3. Go on the journey with them. Offer things to look at that the person might not notice without your cues. Reminisce, being careful not to replace their reality for your own.
  4. Repetitive motion is important. Walking is repetitive, and an integral component of the urge to wander. If walking isn’t safe, try rocking or swinging, or use a wheelchair. Movement is a sensory experience.
  5. Make it fun. Set up a scavenger hunt by placing post-it notes on the walls for them to search and find. See if you can count how many squirrels you see or the number of steps to the mailbox. This might be a good alternative for the person whose wandering behavior may easily lead to an elopement event.

Above all, don’t discourage the urge to wander in someone who clearly needs the repetitive movement and hands-on exploration to help them deal with confusion. Sundowners may especially benefit from the well-timed opportunity to get out and move. Remember, we all wander to some extent… and sometimes wish we could do it more.

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2 comments

  1. I’m constantly moving even inside my own house. It was so hard for me to sit still in a cubicle for years. If I’m ever unfortunate to have Alzheimer’s, my wife will likely have her hands full keeping me near. I recommend to her that we have a garden where I can stay engaged. Playing with different plants is something that I have always enjoyed. So it will need to have multiple points of interest.

    • Exactly Mike. It’s hard enough to be limited by orthopedic issues associated with aging- when it simply hurts to move around. But to have the desire and willingness to move and have it be limited by your surroundings or people in it is just not ideal.

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