Understanding Wandering Among Older Adults

May 28, 2019

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 6 in 10 people with dementia will wander.  A person with Alzheimer’s may not remember their name or address, and can become disoriented, even in familiar places.

Wandering is a huge risk for anyone with memory problems and is able to walk, even in the early stages of dementia. And is one of the most dangerous behaviors associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Therefore, it’s important to plan ahead for this type of situation. 

Warning Signs of Wandering

Every person living with Alzheimer’s is different and therefore might display different warning signs, but here is a list of behaviors to look out for:

  • Returns from a regular walk or drive later than usual
  • Forgets how to get to familiar places.
  • Talks about fulfilling former obligations, such as going to work
  • Tries or wants to “go home,” even when at home
  • Is restless, paces or makes repetitive movements
  • Has difficulty locating familiar places like the bathroom, bedroom or dining room
  • Asks the whereabouts of past friends and family
  • Acts as if doing a hobby or chore, but nothing gets done (e.g., moves around pots and dirt without actually planting anything)
  • Acts nervous or anxious in crowded areas, such as shopping malls or restaurants.

Reasons for Wandering

Alzheimer’s causes disorientation, which can confuse older adults and lead to wandering. There are many reasons why a person with Alzheimer’s might wander including the following:

Stress or fear

Your loved one might wander as a reaction to an unfamiliar or overstimulating environment, a loud noise or a situation they do not understand.


They might get lost while searching for someone or something.


They might be looking for something to do.

Basic needs

They might be looking for a bathroom or food, or want to go outdoors.

Following past routines

They might try to go to work, do chores or buy groceries.

Prevent Unsafe Wandering

If you are caring for someone with dementia or Alzheimer’s it is very likely they will wander at some point. Luckily, you can take steps to prevent unsafe wandering.

Reduce hazards. 

Remove tripping hazards, such as throw rugs and extension cords. Install night lights to aid nighttime wanderers. Put gates at stairwells to prevent falls.

Install alarms and locks

Various devices can alert you that your loved one is on the move. You might place pressure-sensitive alarm mats at the door or at your loved one's bedside, put warning bells on doors and use childproof covers on doorknobs. If your loved one tends to unlock doors, you might install sliding bolt locks out of your loved one's line of sight.

Use a GPS device

Consider having your loved one wear a GPS or other tracking device that can send electronic alerts about their location. If your loved one wanders, the GPS device can help you find them quickly.

Identify the most likely times of day that wandering may occur

Plan activities at that time. Activities and exercise can reduce anxiety, agitation and restlessness.

Reassure the person if they feel lost, abandoned or disoriented

If the person with dementia wants to leave to "go home" or "go to work," use communication focused on exploration and validation. Refrain from correcting the person. For example, "We are staying here tonight. We are safe and I'll be with you. We can go home in the morning after a good night's rest."

Avoid busy places that are confusing and can cause disorientation

This could be a shopping malls, grocery stores or other busy venues.

Provide supervision

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.

Keep car keys out of sight

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.

Develop a plan for wandering

Since wandering is so common for people with dementia, it’s important to develop a plan for wandering.

  • Keep a list of people to call on for help. Have telephone numbers easily accessible.
  • Ask neighbors, friends and family to call if they see the person alone.
  • Keep a recent, close-up photo and updated medical information on hand to give to police.
  • Know your neighborhood. Pinpoint dangerous areas near the home, such as bodies of water, open stairwells, dense foliage, tunnels, bus stops and roads with heavy traffic.
  • Keep a list of places where the person may wander. This could include past jobs, former homes, places of worship or a restaurant.
  • Provide the person with ID jewelry. Enroll the person in MedicAlert®+ Alzheimer's Association Safe Return®.

What to do if the person has wandered?

If the person does wander, search the immediate area for no more than 15 minutes. Call "911" and report to the police that a person with Alzheimer's disease — a "vulnerable adult" — is missing. 

A Missing Report should be filed and the police will begin to search for the individual. In addition, a report should be filed with MedicAlert® + Alzheimer's Association Safe Return® at 800-625-3780. 

First responders are trained to check with MedicAlert+ Alzheimer's Association Safe Return when they locate a missing person with dementia. You do not need to be enrolled in MedicAlert+ Alzheimer's Association Safe Return in order to file a missing report.