Area Agency on Aging: Does someone you help wander dangerously?

By Kay Kaylor
PREVIEW Columnist

I advocate for residents in skilled nursing and assisted living residences as the regional long-term care ombudsman. I also am a Senior Medicare Patrol and State Health Insurance Assistance Program counselor, all as an employee of San Juan Basin Area Agency on Aging (SJBAAA). The many aging and care concerns will be addressed here. 

Sometimes an individual who needs a caregiver will find a way to leave a residence without supervision. Here are some tips, with additional comments, from the Family Caregiver Alliance and the Alzheimer’s Association (AA) Safe Return Program. Be sure to look for other causes if someone tends to unsafely go outside, such as an infection, side effects from medication, boredom, and unmet physical needs the person cannot express, such as hunger or longing for fresh air.

Another option, as described in a Next Avenue online article: A family caregiver treated a difficult situation with patience and compassion when her mother, who was living with memory loss, wanted to leave the house. She allowed her mother to go outside with a coat and followed closely behind, eventually joining her on the walk with permission. This practice might help prevent anxiety and frustration, even if the person needs assistance walking.

Making time for exercise when caregiving helps keep all involved from becoming restless and impatient with staying indoors. A second tip suggests installing locks that require a key or code to open. Because a person living with dementia might not look beyond eye level, a lock could be installed higher or lower than typical placement. The lock must still be easy to open for others in the household for fire and safety reasons.

Several items could be used to mask an exit door. Barriers like a curtain or colored streamers have prevented unwanted wandering. Or, a “Stop” sign or “Do not enter” sign in large letters and posted on a door might be effective. Another suggestion is to put child-safe plastic covers on doorknobs, thus disguising them. Due to depth vision problems characteristic of some illnesses, a confused person might perceive a black mat or a painted black space outside the door as an impassable hole.

If a caregiver knows the individual will not leave without certain items, they can be hidden, such as a specific coat, purse, or glasses, but allow the person to have these items at other times to relieve frustration, and consider having something warm, like a wool blanket, near the exit doors in the winter. In addition, home security or monitoring systems, even chair and bed alarms, help caregivers keep track of individuals.

The Alliance lists several ways to find a person who might succeed in leaving the residence. First, caregivers should keep a current photo of the individual handy. Technological items that track locations, such as a GPS device, could be worn. Identification bracelets and name labels with a phone number sewn into clothes quickly aid someone who encounters the lost or confused person. Tell trusted neighbors who to contact if they see the person outside without supervision. Finally, it is possible to register an individual who tends to leave home with the local police and the AA Safe Return Program.

SJBAAA offers resources for people age 60 and older or on Medicare; see sjbaaa.org. For further information, please call or text 403-2165 or send an email to kkaylor@sjbaaa.org. 

This story was posted on February 22, 2021.