Supporting a person with dementia who walks about
If a person with dementia often walks about it can be difficult to know what to do. Read the following tips about supporting a person who walks about.
How to help a person with dementia walk about safely
It is important to remember that walking about may be a phase that the person is going through. Take the time to try to understand why they are walking about and what they need – this can often help to manage the situation.
If the person you are caring for wants to walk about, try to find a way for them to do so safely.
For instance, if the person’s home has a garden, you could look for ways to make it safe for them to walk around – for example by making sure there are no obstacles on the ground and that the grass is not overgrown. To make the experience more enjoyable, you could create a circular path with points of interest, such as birdfeeders and garden ornaments.
You could also try to find a local service, group or organisation that helps people with dementia take part in activities, including walking.
Some organisations also specialise in structured leisure and wellbeing activities for people with dementia. Your local Alzheimer’s Society service may be able to help you find out about what is available in your area.
You may be able to get help through a care needs assessment (also called a community care assessment in Northern Ireland). This is the process that local authorities use to assess the care needs of a person with dementia.
What to do when the person wants to leave the house
If a person with dementia walks about, they may leave their home. This can be worrying for carers. It can be hard to know how to manage this situation and any risks, while maintaining the person’s independence.
If you want to encourage the person not to leave the house, try distracting them with an activity – even everyday tasks like folding clothes or laying the table. It can help if you suggest activities that involve moving around.
If the person you are caring for is determined to leave their home, try not to argue with them, as this could be upsetting. Instead try to find out where they want to go, and help them put on appropriate clothing if necessary (for example, outdoor shoes and a coat) and accompany them. You can then try to divert their attention so that you can both return home safely.
Make sure the person carries some identification or the name and phone number of someone who can be contacted if they get lost. You could sew this information onto a jacket or handbag so that it is not easily removed.
You can also try installing a door sensor that plays a pre-recorded message asking the person not to leave the house. It may also help if you switch off any outside lights at night to minimise what they can see through the windows.
You can also think about getting a specialist tracking device that uses GPS to locate where a person is. However you will need to get the person’s consent and think about whether a tracking device would be suitable for them.
These options may not suit everyone, and it’s important to monitor the things you try to make sure they do not cause further confusion or distress for the person you are caring for.
Do not use medication, such as sleeping tablets, to prevent the person from getting up at night or walking about.
Doses that are strong enough to stop someone from walking about can make them feel drowsy and, in some instances, cause them to fall. Medication can also increase their confusion, worsen memory problems and possibly cause incontinence.
Tips for reducing the risk when someone walks about
- Try to find out whether there are local volunteer schemes in your area that help people with dementia to return home if they walk about. For example Neighbourhood Return is a scheme that notifies local volunteers who can help to look for a person who has got lost. Contact your local council for more information about the scheme and to see whether it operates in your area.
- If the person uses a mobile phone, make sure some ‘in case of emergency’ (ICE) numbers are saved and easily accessible – for example the phone number of their primary carer. If the mobile phone is switched on, it may also be possible to trace the person if they go missing.
- If you know and trust local shopkeepers and neighbours, consider sensitively telling them that the person has dementia and giving them your contact details. Ask them to call you if they see the person walking about. You should get the person’s consent to tell other people that they have dementia, if they are able to give it. If the person can’t give their consent, only disclose their diagnosis if you think it is in the person’s best interests.
- If the person is in day care, respite residential care or long-term care, tell the staff about their tendency to walk about. You can also ask about the policy on safe walking and care for residents who are prone to walk about.
Locking doors when a person has dementia
Some carers may decide to lock a person with dementia in their home so that they cannot leave. However, a person with dementia should never be locked in if they are on their own as this can be very dangerous – for example if there is a fire, or if they have an accident or fall.
If there is someone else in the house with the person, you may want to lock the doors to stop the person going outside and putting themselves at risk. You might do this, for example, if they live near a busy road. You should discuss whether to lock the doors with any other people who are involved in the person’s care.
Any decisions that you make should not place the person with dementia at any risk, and doors should be locked for the shortest time necessary. Be aware of any fire risks and ensure that the locks are easy for you or another carer to operate.
If the person has capacity (the ability to make decisions) and consents to the doors being locked then you can lock them. If the person doesn’t have capacity you can lock the doors if it is in their best interests and is also the least restrictive option for keeping them safe.
What to do if the person disappears when walking about
If the person with dementia disappears when walking about, try to stay calm. You can try the following:
- If you can’t find the person, tell the local police. Keep a recent photograph of the person to help the police identify them.
- Consider taking part in the Herbert Protocol – a national scheme that encourages carers to compile useful information that can be used if a vulnerable person later goes missing. The Herbert Protocol is used by about 70% of police services across England and Wales and an online version of the Protocol is being considered. Contact your local police station for more information.
- Think of places the person likes or has visited a lot in the past as they may have gone there. For example, they might have gone to places they previously lived or worked, or places where they have enjoyed spending time.
- Consider using social media to ask people in the local area to contact you if they see the person. You might find it useful to post to local area groups and missing persons groups. However, think very carefully about which groups you post to and how much information you decide to share online – for example, the person you are caring for may not want other people to know that they have dementia.
- When the person returns, try not to react angrily or criticise them. If they were lost, they may be feeling anxious. Reassure them, and get them back into a familiar routine.
After the situation is resolved, try to give yourself time and space to relax. You may find it helpful to talk to a family member, a friend or a professional.
Making decisions and managing difficult situations
Find out more about the Mental Capacity Act 2005 and get advice on how to approach decision-making for someone with dementia.
Dementia Connect support line
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