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Winter weather adds safety risk for families impacted by dementia

February 1, 2020

Cold temperatures, freezing wind chills, and snow and ice are common in many parts of the country during the winter months, but they can pose an added danger to individuals living with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia-related illnesses who are prone to wandering, a common behavior associated with these conditions.

The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America provides tips to help caregivers reduce the chances of their loved one wandering and ensure that they are prepared if an emergency arises.

“Someone with a dementia-related illness who wanders can quickly become disoriented, unable to return to safety, or not know how or who to call for help. Freezing winter temperatures make these situations even more dangerous,” said Charles J. Fuschillo Jr., association president and CEO. “By being proactive, family caregivers can help lessen the chances that their loved one will wander and ensure that they are better prepared to react quickly if an incident occurs.”

Wandering often stems from an unmet need or desire for purpose and is sometimes a form of communication, as individuals may have difficulty expressing themselves with words as their disease progresses.

Issues to watch out for include confusion, social disengagement, boredom, pain, hunger or thirst, need for a restroom, anxiety, emotional distress and searching for something from the present or past. 

Things caregivers can do include:

  • Pay attention to the individual’s wandering patterns such as frequency, duration and time of day, and prepare activities that can be used to redirect their attention.
  • Provide opportunities for socialization and engagement for the individual. Keeping busy can help to stimulate and engage. Consider recreational or other therapeutic activities such as art or music.
  • Ensure the person’s basic needs for food, beverages and restroom breaks are met.
  • Use medical identification bracelets, necklaces and tracking devices for monitoring.
  • Install electronic chimes or doorbells on doors so someone is alerted if the individual tries to exit, but be mindful of how this alert can impact the individual.
  • Reduce environmental stimuli, such as loud noises or crowds, which can be disorienting.

To be prepared, caregivers should know the individual’s past and present favorite spots in the area. In the event they wander from home, this will help when looking for them. Current photographs of the individual and their medical information should be readily available.

Caregivers should check to see if a loved one’s municipality has a Project Lifesaver program, designed to protect and quickly locate individuals with cognitive disorders. Project Lifesaver uses locating devices to aid in the search and rescue of individuals. It’s important for caregivers to familiarize themselves with Silver Alert, Delaware’s public alert service. Silver Alert is a notification system that broadcasts information about missing persons – especially individuals with Alzheimer’s, dementia or other cognitive disorders – in order to solicit aid in locating them. Caregivers should keep local police contact information on hand and be ready to call 911 in an emergency situation. Family and caregivers should know the individual’s phone carrier and number to track them by phone.

To speak with a licensed social worker, families affected by Alzheimer’s disease who have questions or need support can contact the association’s national toll-free helpline at 866-232-8484. To connect online, go to www.alzfdn.org. The helpline is open seven days a week.