Alzheimer's guide: Protect your loved one from wandering

One of the most dangerous and distressing symptoms of Alzheimer's is wandering. It may seem unfathomable that a person might suddenly get up at night to go to the post office or leave home at any hour for no apparent reason. But wandering may be prompted by deep-seated memories of work, chores, or hobbies, or a longing to return to a former home.

The inability to control wandering is what often drives families to decide to place a loved one in a nursing home. However, there are some simple measures to prevent wandering that often work well for a time and can even help postpone that difficult decision.

The Alzheimer's Association recommends these steps:

  • Install slide bolts at the top or bottom of doors.
  • Place warning bells on doors.
  • Camouflage doorknobs by covering them with cloth of the same color as the doors. Consider childproof knobs, too.
  • Camouflage doors by painting them the same shade as surrounding walls.
  • Create a two-foot black threshold in front of doors with paint or tape. (A rug might do the job, too.) This creates the illusion of a gap or hole that a person with limited visual spatial abilities may be reluctant to cross.

In addition to these preventive measures, you'll want to take some additional precautions so you're prepared if wandering does occur.

    • Keep a recent, close-up photograph available, both print and digital. This is very helpful should the worst occur and your loved one leave the house unexpectedly.
    • Keep a written list of places that he or she might go, such as church or a favorite restaurant, job site, or previous home. The Alzheimer's Association notes that wandering generally follows the direction of a person's dominant hand — to the right if right handed, or the left if left handed.
    • Post emergency numbers in a handy spot.
    • Buy identification jewelry engraved with "memory impaired" and the person's name, address, and phone number. You might also consider Safe Return programs that offer a bracelet or pendant with a toll-free emergency response number that you — or anyone who finds the wanderer — can call 24 hours a day. Response line personnel alert police and a personal contact list.
    • A high-tech option uses GPS and cell towers to provide an approximate location for a person who might wander. Depending on the level of need, families might request an alert if the person wearing the locator device leaves a specified zone, or they might tap into the system only in case of emergency.

      For more on diagnosing and treating Alzheimer's, buy A Guide to Alzheimer's Disease from Harvard Medical School.