Wandering is one of the most frightening and potentially life-threatening behaviors that may accompany Alzheimer’s disease, and often, one of the first warning signs of the disease. As many as 60 percent of the 4 million Americans with Alzheimer’s disease will wander at some point, often leaving home and unable to find their way back. Ten years ago, in an effort to address this serious issue, the Alzheimer’s Association started the Safe Return Program, a nationwide identification program that helps return individuals with Alzheimer’s disease who wander and become lost.
Since 1993, the Alzheimer’s Association has registered more than 100,000 people with Alzheimer’s disease in the Safe Return Program and has facilitated the recovery of nearly 8,000 of those individuals who have wandered, and safely returned them to their families and caregivers. The government-funded program operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week by working through Alzheimer’s Association chapters across the country, community members, law enforcement and other emergency responders. The only program of its kind specifically for people with Alzheimer’s, Safe Return has a near 100 percent success rate in safely returning those registered in the program.
“No two people experience Alzheimer’s disease in the same way, therefore it is impossible to predict which individuals with Alzheimer’s will wander and get lost. However, if a person wanders once, they will likely do it again,” said Kathy O’Brien, vice president, program services for the Alzheimer’s Association “The association has made education about the triggers of wandering and ways to prevent it a priority. In the unfortunate event that a person with Alzheimer’s disease does wander and become lost, the Safe Return Program is in place to immediately notify local law enforcement and emergency responders, and aid them in their search and rescue mission.”
If a person is lost and not found within the first 24 hours, there is a nearly 50 percent chance they will be at risk for serious injury or even death. Individuals who wander are confused and sometimes unable to ask for help, leaving them vulnerable to weather, traffic and those who prey on the less fortunate. Wandering can be triggered by a number of factors:
* Stress, restlessness, anxiety, agitation
* Inability to recognize familiar people, places or objects
* A desire to fulfill former obligations such as going to work or caring for a child
* The need for food, companionship or communication
* Fear arising from a misinterpretation of sights and sounds
* Wandering Prevention
A number of simple measures can be taken to help prevent wandering. Precautionary measures include:
* Place a dark-colored mat in front of the door as it may be perceived as a hole or a place to be avoided
* Install warning bells above doors or try monitoring devices that signal when a door is opened
* Clearly label all doors using signs or symbols that explain the purpose of each room and discourage entry by labeling “Do Not Enter” or “No!”
* Observe if the wandering behavior occurs at a consistent time each day and try to identify its cause and distract the individual with another activity during that time
* Camouflage doors by painting them the same color as the walls
Keep “scented” clothing on-hand to give to police should the person become lost
About Safe Return
Safe Return provides registrants and their families with a personalized bracelet and other identification materials, and stores contact information in a confidential, national computerized database. The program’s nationwide, toll-free 800 number is listed on the identification pieces. The program includes:
* Identification products, including bracelets or necklaces, wallet cards, clothing labels, telephone stickers
* A confidential, national photo/information database
* A 24-hour toll-free emergency incident line
* Alzheimer’s Association support
* Wandering behavior education and training for caregivers, families, law enforcement and other emergency responders
When a Safe Return registrant wanders and is found, the person who finds him/her can call the Safe Return toll-free number located on the wanderer’s identification bracelet, necklace, wallet card, or clothing labels. The Safe Return care consultant immediately alerts the family member or caregiver listed in the database to be reunited with their loved one. If a person is reported missing by a family member or caregiver, Safe Return faxes the missing person’s information and photograph to local law enforcement agencies. Local Alzheimer’s Association chapters provide family support and assistance while police conduct the search and rescue.
To register, a person with Alzheimer’s disease or their caregiver completes a simple form, supplies a photograph, and chooses the type of identification product that the registrant will wear and/or carry. The registration fee is $40 and can be done by phone, mail or online. To find out if scholarships are available to cover the cost of registration and for more information about the Safe Return Program, or for a copy of “Is It Alzheimer’s, Ten Warning Sign You Should Know,” contact the Alzheimer’s Association at (800) 272-3900 or visit the association’s web site at www.alz.org/SafeReturn.