An Echo Press Editorial: How to help those with dementia in winter

By the Echo Press Editorial Board

EP Echo Press Editorial
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It's one of the most heartbreaking calls that come across the police scanner: An elderly person with dementia has wandered off and is lost. Family and friends are searching frantically but can't find their loved one.

It affects more people than many would expect. According to a study by Columbia University researchers, almost 10% of U.S. adults ages 65 and older have dementia, while another 22% have mild cognitive impairment.

Wandering is a very common and potentially dangerous behavior among individuals living with dementia, according to the Alzheimer's Foundation of America. The problem ramps up in the winter months because freezing temperatures, ice, and snow create additional safety hazards.

To help families protect their loved ones living with dementia this winter, the foundation is providing tips to reduce the chances of wandering, and prepare care partners to respond quickly if their loved one is missing.

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, use input from the person when developing the plan.

The Alzheimer's Foundation of America has a help line, staffed entirely by licensed social workers who are specifically trained in dementia care, who 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 (

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