Police and family are breathed a sigh of relief last month when the search for Benson Hendrickson, a sixty-one year old Alzheimer’s patient, ended with the man admitted to Grady Hospital. Sandy Springs police had been seeking the man since the night before, when he wandered away from caregivers.
Hendrickson had no memory of how he came to Grady.
No foul play is suspected. The loss of cognition is a fear many of us face in our parents and grandparents. Wandering Alzheimer’s and dementia patients pose a danger to themselves and others, and caregivers may struggle with how to deal with the challenges this poses.
The National Institute of Aging, part of the U.S National Institutes of Health, offers a great deal of advice and information on Alzheimer’s to help caregivers cope with these unique problems.
They suggest several courses of action for wandering. These include insuring that obstacles and hazards which might injure or trip a patient be removed, making sure that the floors and the patient’s shoes help prevent slipping, attempting to remove clues or triggers – things such as keys, hats which might indicate to the patient that they ought to leave – and using locks and locking devices to ensure that the Alzheimer’s patient cannot leave the building. They even suggest using strategically placed signs on doors, reading things like STOP, DO NOT ENTER, or CLOSED.
They recommend medical alert bracelets which specify “memory loss,” as well as identifying tags on clothes, and informing neighbors and area police if you live with someone who is liable to wander.
Most importantly, elderly individuals with a history of wandering should not be left unattended.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia in adults. It is a degenerative disease which is progressive and irreversible. Because of Alzheimer’s, an estimated 4.5 million Americans suffer from memory loss and impaired intellect. It primarily affects people in their sixties and older, but can on rare occasions strike people much younger.
There is no typical profile for the progression of an Alzheimer’s patient. At this time, it is impossible to tell how quickly the disease will progress, and which symptoms a particular individual might experience. The disease is marked by declining memory and cognitive function, but it can also include changes in behavior, agitation, irritability, or passiveness. They may wander, and they may potentially not be able to tell the difference between day and night. Alzheimer’s patients have been known to wake in the middle of the night, dress, and attempt to leave, believing that it is the beginning of the day.
Wandering becomes a particularly dangerous prospect when we realize that not all Alzheimer’s patients are able to understand and respond to dangerous situations.
Through prevention, understanding, and creativity, it is possible for caregivers to minimize the dangers to Alzheimer’s patients in their care. Understandably, many of us want to be able to keep our loved ones in our homes rather than consigning them to a rest home. The lifestyle, sense of belonging and comfort of a home is like nothing else. With work, caregivers can continue to provide that loving care, without compromising safety.