Senior Living: Six in 10 People with Dementia Will Wander

Senior Living: Six in 10 People with Dementia Will Wander

Alzheimer’s Association offer tips to prepare for this emergency situation

On March 7, 2023, Fairfax County Police on alerted on Twitter:

#Missing 79-yr-old Catherine Hudgins last seen 1:20 pm leaving the 2200 block of Colts Neck Rd in Reston. 5’7”, 162lbs, grey hair, brown eyes, gray jacket, blue jeans, gray sneakers. Endangered due to mental &/or physical health concerns. Call 703-691-2131. #FCPD

The alert was like a bolt of electricity throughout Northern Virginia where so many people know and love the former Hunter Mill Supervisor Cathy Hudgins. Fortunately, a police license plate reader led authorities to a bus driver who had seen Hudgins. The information led to finding her safe and returning her to her home.

While many episodes of wandering don’t get farther than the driveway or a helpful neighbor, not all end happily.

Wandering and getting lost is common among people living with Alzheimer’s or other dementia and can happen during any stage of the disease. Six in 10 people living with dementia will wander at least once; many do so repeatedly. Although common, wandering can be dangerous — even life-threatening — and the stress of this risk weighs heavily on caregivers and family.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, on Feb. 8, Judy Hollon, a woman with dementia, wandered from home and was found deceased in the North Fork of the Shenandoah River. Just a few weeks earlier, Eucharia Eleweanya, also a woman with dementia, wandered from her home in Prince George's County and was found deceased a week later.

“Anyone who has memory problems and is able to walk is at risk for wandering,” said Cindy Schelhorn, senior director of communications and marketing with the Alzheimer’s Association National Capital Area Chapter. “Even in the early stages of dementia, the person can become disoriented or confused for a period of time and may not remember his or her name or address.”

Behaviors that may indicate an increased risk of wandering include:

* Forgetting how to get to familiar places

* Talking about fulfilling former obligations, such as going to work

* Trying or wanting to "go home," even when at home

The stress experienced by families and caregivers when a person living with dementia wanders and becomes lost is significant. Planning ahead and being prepared is critical when this dangerous – and potentially fatal – situation occurs. When preparing an emergency plan, be sure to:

* Ask neighbors, friends and family to call if they see the person alone.

* Keep a recent, close-up photo and current medical information on hand to give to police.

* Know your neighborhood and any dangerous areas nearby, i.e. bodies of water, dense foliage, bus stops or busy roads.

* Create a list of places where the person may wander, including past jobs, former homes, places of worship, or a favorite restaurant. 

* Consider enrolling the person in a wandering response service. 

“When a memory-impaired person goes missing, don’t wait. Begin looking immediately,” said Schelhorn. “Many people who wander are found within 1.5 miles of where they disappeared. If the person isn’t located within 15 minutes, call 911 and report that a person with Alzheimer's disease or dementia is missing.”

Wandering situations can happen even to the most diligent of caregivers. Following are strategies to help lower the chances of a wandering incident:

* Identify the time of day the person is most likely to wander. Plan activities, such as folding laundry or preparing dinner, to keep the person engaged and reduce anxiety, agitation and restlessness.
* Reassure the person if he or she feels lost, abandoned or disoriented. If the person wants to "go home" or "go to work," use communication focused on exploration and validation. Refrain from correcting the person. 

* Ensure all basic needs are met, including toileting, nutrition and hydration.

* Avoid busy places that are confusing and can cause disorientation. 

* Use devices that signal when a door or window is opened. This can be as simple as a bell placed above a door or as sophisticated as an electronic home alarm.
* Do not leave someone with dementia unsupervised in new or changed surroundings. Never lock a person in at home or leave him or her in a car alone.
* If the person is no longer driving, remove access to car keys — a person with dementia may not just wander by foot. The person may forget that he or she can no longer drive. If the person is still able to drive, consider using a GPS device to help if they get lost.

The Alzheimer’s Association can provide families and caregivers with additional guidance on keeping people with memory issues safe. For more information, call the Association’s free 24/7 Helpline at 800-272-3900 or visit

About the Alzheimer’s Association

The Alzheimer’s Association is the leading voluntary health organization in Alzheimer's care, support and research. Our mission is to lead the way to end Alzheimer's and all other dementia — by accelerating global research, driving risk reduction and early detection, and maximizing quality care and support. Our vision is a world without Alzheimer’s and all other dementia.