Many people with dementia spend excessive amounts of time walking, either in a repetitive manner i.e. up and down a corridor or for long distances outside.
This excessive walking is often known as ‘wandering’, however this is a term that is increasingly discouraged as it indicates ‘aimless / thoughtless wandering’ and can add to the stigmatised view that people with dementia have no purpose.
Walking in itself is not a problem, as it is a good form of exercise and it can relieve boredom and stress. However for people with dementia, excessive walking may be an indication of an unmet need. In addition it can cause carers to worry for their loved ones safety.
This page aims to look at why someone with dementia may walk excessively, the impact on their health and well being and what can be done to maintain safety.
Why someone may walk about
- They simply enjoy walking and they are maintaining a hobby or routine.
- Responding to a physical need i.e. looking for a toilet or food.
- To relieve pain or stiffness.
- Feeling restless.
- Responding to feelings of anxiety.
- Relieve boredom.
- Memory loss – they may walk into a room and forget why.
- Searching for someone or something.
- Feeling lost or curious (especially in a new environment).
Note: Sundowning can increase pacing and excessive walking.
Risks of wandering
- Weight loss.
- Getting lost.
- Accidents due to poor traffic awareness.
Limiting the risks
Excessive walking is a difficult symptom to manage, as you have to balance the person living with dementia right to maintain their independence and quality of life for as long as possible, with the potential risks to their safety. Below are a few tips on how to mitigate the risk.
- Provide a safe and secure environment.
- Make the environment as clutter free as possible to reduce falls.
- Try and create secure areas for example a fenced in garden area.
- Camouflage doors – painting doors the same colour as the walls can hide the fact that it’s an exit.
- Use pressure mats on doors which will alert you if your loved one has left a room / the house.
- Create a daily routine.
- Having a daily routine may help to identify if there are any common triggers, for example, are they starting to feel hungry at lunch time.
- Identify patterns or times of the day when your loved one tends to walk and plan activities to distract them.
- Have support structures in place.
- Let neighbours / local businesses discreetly know about your loved ones dementia and give them your contact details, so they can contact you if they see them looking lost or upset.
- Have family or friends on hand to accompany your loved one if they are adamant they want to go out.
- Use assistive technology to avoid your loved one getting lost.
- Make sure your loved one is carrying identification and contact details. ID bracelets are available, to which you can add contact detail and other useful information.
- GPS tracker devices can be carried or worn, which enables you to find your loved one quickly and easily if they wander off.
For details of the assistive technology available to help mitigate the risks associated with ‘wandering’ visit the Products & Devices – Safety page.
Mum’s excessive walking
Mum has always enjoyed walking and throughout her illness she used to spend excessive amounts of time walking. In the early days of her illness Mum was agitated for much of the time and going for a walk was one of the few activities that would calm her down.
There were times when Mum was still living at home when she would quickly become anxious and rush out of the house. A couple of times, when we weren’t quick enough to accompany her, she got lost and when we did finally manage to track her down she was disorientated and upset.
As the disease progressed much of Mum’s walking was probably down to boredom, and although we did try and engage Mum in activities to keep her occupied, she would always quickly lose interest and wander off.
Even in the later stages of the disease when Mum was very unsteady on feet she would still spend much of her time walking and had numerous falls as a result.
Throughout Mum’s illness, I never gave much thought to why Mum walked so much as she had always enjoyed walking. I certainly never considered it to be a common symptom of dementia, with the label of ‘wandering’. Having said that, it was enough of an issue to be a significant consideration in choosing the care home where Mum lived. We were adamant that the home needed to be on one floor (stairs were a fall risk) with plenty of room to roam. Mum would have hated it if she had been confined to one communal living room, it would have driven her absolutely bonkers!!!
For more information the Alzheimer’s Society has produced a very useful fact sheet.