After last week’s post about ways to make bedtime easier, a reader asked whether my mother ever wandered at night. (Thank you, Kathy!)
Many people with Alzheimer’s wander, in the day or night or both. Those we care for may walk through the house, up and down halls, restless, as though looking for someone or something. Though that situation can be challenging, it’s far more problematic if the person you care for goes out of the house. The term “escape” is appropriate here. We’re not talking about taking a loved one for a walk—we’re talking about him leaving the house alone without our knowledge. And of course, doing that at night increases the danger exponentially.
My mother didn’t wander. I am fully aware of the magnitude of that blessing.
I have a friend whose mom tried to go out the front door virtually every night. In sheer desperation, her husband, my friend’s father, nailed boards across the door. Finally, one night her mom got a hammer and tried to pull the boards down. Though my friend and her dad managed to take the hammer away, it’s a miracle no one was hurt in the incident.
An extreme case, and a dangerous attempt to keep a loved one safe, and an example to confirm yet again that caregivers always need our prayers.
There are better ways to approach the problem of wandering. Below I’ve gathered some strategies that worked for other caregivers.
Bob De Marco of the Alzheimer’s Reading Room suggests that wandering sometimes occurs simply because a loved one is restless or hasn’t had enough exercise. Or she may no longer recognize her surroundings, feel lost, and try to find a familiar place.
So one obvious solution is to provide safe ways for your loved one to exercise during the day. The emphasis here is on “safe.” If you haven’t already taken steps to eliminate obstacles from your living space, now is certainly the time. Throw rugs, electrical cords, even furniture with sharp corners that extend into the room can present problems for all elderly adults, especially those with an unsteady walk and a diminished awareness of their surroundings.
Taking your loved one outside to walk requires the same watchfulness, but it can combine the benefits of exercise and exposure to sunlight. Research has confirmed Bob DeMarco’s observation:
“I believe bright light makes a person who is deeply forgetful (DFP) more awake and alert. They tend to speak more and seem to be ‘more there.’ DFPs seem to have more personality and an improved mood when exposed to bright light daily.”
You might have to be creative in the pursuit of exercise. Dad and I found that, although Mom refused to walk much at home, if we took her to the store with us, she was happy to walk up and down the aisles behind a shopping cart. The cart steadied her, and the sights, sounds, and smells of the grocery store appeared to be comforting to her.
Other caregivers have noted that “camouflaging” doors—painting or wallpapering doors to match the walls of the room—has made it more difficult for their loved ones to open the door and wander outside. But a caregiver posting on the Forum page of the Alzheimer’s organization in the UK (forum.alzheimers.org.uk/forum.php) described how his father would rise during the night and try to leave the house. When he couldn’t open the door, he would pound on it with his cane. Twice he hit the reinforced double-paned glass in the door hard enough to break it. In this case, other caregivers responded that they were alerted to their loved ones’ rising at night by an alarm system designed specifically for that purpose. The alarm, they explained, was triggered by means of a mat beside the bed or on the mattress of the bed.
The Alzheimer’s Association Help Line will have other suggestions for handling the problem of keeping your loved one from wandering outside. They will also help you register him in a national database that will keep a record of your contact information so that authorities can notify you in case of an emergency.
Short of staying awake all night to watch the person you’re caring for, or hiring someone to do that, none of these methods, I fear, can guarantee success. But many caregivers have told me that, as Alzheimer’s advances, night-time wandering becomes less and less of a problem. As with so many facts associated with this terrible disease, that bit of information is bittersweet at best.
Lord, the task of caregiving is lonely, painful, and often cruel. In the worst of times, we beg You to remind us that we have seen our loved ones smile and we will see it again. Assure us that, even when they no longer recognize us, we’ll see relief on their faces because we’re there for them. We’ll know—You will make us aware of—their thanks and love. Thank You for caring for them always. Thank You for caring for us, too.
I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.
(Psalm 4:8 NIV)