This is the 11th in a series of bi-weekly articles written by Frank S. P. Yacino regarding Alzheimer’s disease. He is the husband and caregiver for his wife Barbara who has been struggling with this disease for over fifteen years.
Some of what you will be reading in this article may or may not apply to your particular loved one with Alzheimer’s. Once again I reiterate that these are our experiences with Barbara and how we dealt with it.
Barbara enjoyed walking from the time we first met so during her on-set of dementia she was still able to leave the house for a walk in the neighborhood or go as far away as a mile and still be able to find her way home. Many times she’d take the car and go to the walk-path at Memorial Beach here in Webster and I had no reason to doubt that she would find her way home. I would even join her in walking if I wasn’t working.
As Barbara’s dementia progressed she had the habit of just wandering out of the house at anytime. I had spoken too many of our neighbors and advised them of Barbara’s condition and to be aware in case they saw her doing something inappropriate, such as putting things in her mouth off the street or touching things she shouldn’t.
On two separate occasions Barbara left the house, once while I was working downstairs and once when I was vacuuming. Both times when I couldn’t find her in the house I ran outside to the street and looked both ways. Each time she left she went to the left of the driveway and both times a neighbor had her by the hand and was leading her back to our house. I was lucky that she was still in the neighborhood when I realized that she was missing and that the neighbors knew what to do.
One afternoon when I came home from work Barbara was nowhere to be found in the house or yard. I had driven on the streets to our house coming home and did not see her walking anywhere. I was now in “panic mode.” She could be anywhere in or out of our neighborhood. I frantically got back in the vehicle and took off like a madman, not knowing whether I would find Barbara or not. I drove through all the streets in our area and she was nowhere to be found. I went as far away as a mile and a half away from the house with no luck. On my way back to the house, about three quarters of a mile from home, I spotted Barbara coming out of a wooded area. My first emotion was relief, but a little bit of anger got mixed into that emotion. I scolded her for leaving the house and she showed no emotion whatsoever, because she didn’t understand that what she did could have ended up in a tragic situation. Bottom line though, I was very happy to see her unharmed.
In the sixth article of this series, Safety of the Patient, we discussed two safety items that pertain to “wanderers”, and we’ll re-emphasize them again in this article in case you missed it, those being the Medic Alert Medallion (1-800-363-5985) and the Safe Return Medallion (1-888-572-8566). Both will help authorities in case the patient gets lost or is in an auto accident. By calling those numbers you can enroll your patient for those medallions in case of an emergency. Hopefully they may never be needed, but it will give the family members a sense of safety and security. (Other methods of safety for the patient were also covered in the sixth article.)
As a caregiver you must always be aware of where the patient is in relationship to where you are in the house or outside. As long as the patient can walk they pose a threat to leave whenever the spirit moves them. They will have no sense of direction or time. They could wander during the day or at night.
Depending where the patient lives additional safety issues may require attention. If the patient lives near a river, pond, or lake the hazards could be much greater. Living in the city with all its traffic is another area of concern. The patient may have no realization of safety in crossing the street. For an Alzheimer’s patient the dangers are everywhere and the caregiver must shoulder the responsibility of securing the patient’s safety.
Barbara does not walk anymore so she is not a threat to wander, as that phase of her disease is behind us, but we did have some scary moments for a couple of years. Though that is behind us we now have concerns about the next chapter in her decline. I encourage all caregivers to monitor your loved one very closely and to appreciate and help them as they move from one stage to the next. They will not understand the changes their mind is going through. It won’t be easy, but you will somehow be given the strength to do all that is necessary for your loved one, whether at home or in a long term care facility.