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Understanding Why Seniors Wander Could Keep Seniors Safe

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elderly-WanderingThe dangers of elderly seniors wandering off and getting lost can often end in serious tragedy and appear to be becoming more common as our baby boomer population enters their later years. This is evident by the steady announcements of Silver Alerts, similar to Amber Alerts for missing children, across the country.

The problem is so widespread that understanding why seniors wander could help keep them safe and avoid tragic consequences, say geriatric experts from the Harris County Hospital District.

Senior Baby Boomers

According to the U.S. Administration on Aging and the U.S. Census, the reported population of people over age 65 is expected to more than double from 40.2 million in 2010 to 88.5 million in 2050.

Aging is a Process

“Aging is a process where so many things like memory and physical strength are lost. Part of what seniors try to hold onto is their independence; the independence to make decisions about their health and their future. To aging seniors, driving and going out mean more than most family and caregivers think,” says Dr. Carmel B. Dyer, executive director, Consortium on Aging, interim chief of staff, Lyndon B. Johnson General Hospital, Harris County Hospital District, and professor, Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Geriatric and Palliative Medicine, The University of Texas Health Science Center (UTHealth) at Houston.

Factors Contributing to Senior Wandering

Several factors contribute to seniors wandering away from home. Many older people suffer from mental impairments because of debilitating illnesses such as dementia, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s diseases, as well as normal loss of memory and body functions because of aging.

A few reasons why seniors wander include:

  • Boredom
  • Anxiety. When an elderly parent feels anxious or stress, they may have the urge to flee the environment. You can help lower their anxiety levels by keeping the environment calm and secure. Keep changes to a minimum because disruptions to their routines can cause undue stress.
  • Reliving the past. Be aware of your parent’s history and past routines. For instance, if your dad always visited the donut shop before going to work, if he disappears early in the morning, there is a good chance he may be trying to find the donut shop.
  • Reaction to medication
  • Too much energy
  • Fulfilling prior obligation such as going to work
  • Searching for someone from their past
  • Old habits
  • Discomfort

Dyer says seniors who wander risk getting lost if they experience memory lapses during their outings. Compounded by a more fragile body, seniors could put themselves in situations where people could rob or swindle them. If seniors are driving, they could end up far away from home or be involved in car accidents.

Stopping Senior Wandering

Tips to keep seniors safe include:

  • Create an environment that they will be more likely to recognize. Place family pictures around the home, along with familiar items. You want to make your home seem like home to your parent. Various pieces of furniture and accessories from your childhood can make this possible. Your parent will be less likely to forget where they are if they are surrounded by familiar items and faces.Sensors on doors to alert when a door is opened
  • A medical alert bracelet with engraved contact numbers
  • Alerting neighbors, nearby shops and familiar places of a senior’s tendency to wander
  • Keeping a recent photo of the senior for identification purposes
  • Enrolling seniors in a safe return program
  • Signs that say “Do Not Enter” or “Stop” at doorways to keep them from leaving the house
  • Storing valuables like handbags, car keys and coats in safe place away from view
  • Coordinating color of clothing for certain days to help in searches
  • Encouraging exercise or other activity to minimize restlessness

“Coordinating the color of clothing with the day of the week for seniors can be helpful. If you know mom wears red on Mondays, pink on Tuesdays and purple on Wednesdays, then if mom goes missing, you’ll be able to share a little more about her description with searchers. You may not know the exact thing she’s wearing, but it will hopefully help knowing what color clothing she’s wearing to help find her,” says Dr. Kavon Young, Silver Seniors Clinics, Harris County Hospital District, and assistant professor, Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Geriatric and Palliative Medicine, The University of Texas Health Science Center (UTHealth) at Houston.

Silver Alerts for Wandering Seniors

When a senior wanders or is lost, it’s important to notify police for the possible issuance of a Silver Alert. In Texas, the program is administered by the Texas Department of Public Safety, the state’s police force.

To issue a Silver Alert, the senior’s disappearance must pose a threat to his health and safety and must be requested within 72 hours of the disappearance. Also, the senior must:

  • Be 65 years or older
  • Have a diagnosed mental impairment such as Alzheimer’s disease or dementia
  • Reside in the state issuing the alert
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