Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: May 2023

Wandering is a relatively common symptom of Alzheimer’s disease. People with all types of dementia can wander or become confused about their location. And it can happen at any stage of Alzheimer's. About 6 out of 10 people with dementia will wander at some point.1

While not uncommon, wandering can be concerning for caretakers. It can be dangerous or even life-threatening depending on the situation. But understanding wandering, why it happens, and how to address it can help you prevent and respond to it.1,2

Why do people with Alzheimer’s wander?

There can be many reasons why someone with Alzheimer’s would wander. They might wander as a reaction to a stressful or unfamiliar situation. This may happen, for example, in crowded areas or a new place.2

People who wander may also do so because of an unmet need. They may be hungry, thirsty, or looking to use the bathroom or go outside. They may also be looking for someone or something, like a past friend. Sometimes they may follow old routines, like a familiar route to the store or work.2

It is also possible that wandering is caused by broader problems with vision, memory, or the sense of space around the person. Alzheimer’s can cause issues with navigation, problems remembering where someone is in a space, or trouble with visual cues like signs and landmarks. These can all cause wandering as the person tries to navigate through a world that is confusing to them.1,2

Risk factors for wandering

It can be helpful to keep an eye out for certain behaviors that could be a sign that someone is at risk for wandering. These may look like:1

  • Forgetting how to get to a familiar place
  • Taking longer than usual to come home from a regular walk
  • Problems with navigating within the home
  • Wanting to “go home” despite being at home

You can also keep an eye out for any restlessness or agitation. Someone with Alzheimer’s may become stressed in a crowded place or they may appear lost in a new environment. They also may ask about the whereabouts of past family and friends. All of these can indicate that the person may be at risk to wander.1

Preventing wandering

While there is no way to prevent someone with Alzheimer’s from wandering entirely, there are steps you can take to keep them safe. Earlier in the disease progression, it may help to set a daily time to check in or go over the schedule for the day together. Some people may also benefit from a companion or from arranging alternate transportation to get from place to place.1

Later in Alzheimer’s, creating a routine and reassuring the person that they are safe is key. It may help to provide them with daily, structured activities or to include them in daily tasks like making dinner. If you know which time of day they may wander, planning things to do during this time may reduce risk. Mental and physical exercise can reduce anxiety during these times, too.1

If the person is still driving, getting a GPS device may help avoid them getting lost. If they are no longer driving, remove access to their car keys.1

In many cases, it can be helpful to avoid crowded and busy places, like busy restaurants or shops. Keeping an eye on the person in new surroundings and noticing if they seem anxious or confused are also good ideas.1

Preparing your home and taking action

There are a few things you can do to their home so that the person with Alzheimer’s is less likely to wander. You can place deadbolts out of their line of sight on exterior doors. You can also use bells, a pressure mat, or other notification system to alert you when they go through a door or leave their bed.1

Using physical barriers – like hedges or fences outdoors and safety gates indoors – can also be effective. This creates a safe area that the person can explore without risk of wandering. However, you should never leave someone with Alzheimer’s alone in a locked house or a car.1

If someone with Alzheimer’s does wander, start search efforts immediately. Patterns of wandering usually follow a person’s dominant hand. That is, if they are right-handed they may have instinctively gone right, or to the left if they are left-handed. Many people with Alzheimer’s are found in brush or shrubs. Search near any woods, fences, or ponds that are close by.1

If the person is not found within 15 minutes, call 9-1-1 to file a missing persons report. Tell th 9-1-1 operator that the person you are looking for has dementia.1

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