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It’s common for people living with dementia to wander. This can be confusing and frightening for both the person with dementia and the people who care for them.

Causes of wandering

Because dementia can affect someone’s memory and ability to communicate, they may not be able to tell you why they are wandering. However, these are some common reasons.

  • Memory loss: They might set off to go to the shop or visit a friend, and then forget what they were doing or where they were going.
  • Finding or doing something from their past: They might be looking for someone or something from their past, such as a partner who has died. Or they might believe they need to do a task from their old routine, like going to work.
  • Confusion about where they are: If they’ve moved house or joined a new day care centre, they might feel lost or uncertain about where they are. This might cause them to wander.
  • Night-time confusion: People with dementia may wake up at night and become disoriented. They might think it is daytime and decide to go for a walk outside. Or they might believe a dream is real and respond to it.
  • Boredom or too much energy: Wandering might be a sign that they’re bored or they’re not getting enough exercise during the day.
  • Agitation: Dementia can cause people to feel restless or agitated. This can lead them to pace or wander.
  • Feeling uncomfortable: They might be wandering because they’re in pain, their clothes are too hot or tight, or they need to go to the toilet. They might also be trying to escape somewhere that’s too loud or busy.
  • Continuing a habit: If they used to enjoy walking, they might want to keep doing this.

What you can do

Exactly how you respond to wandering will depend on the person, why they are wandering and whether they’re somewhere that’s potentially dangerous. But these are some strategies you can try.

Reducing wandering

You can try to prevent or reduce wandering by:

  • visiting the doctor to check whether illness, pain or medication might be causing the wandering
  • keeping track of their wandering through a diary or log, as this can help you to work out any patterns or triggers. For example, they might wander at a specific time of the day
  • removing objects that might remind them to wander, such as handbags, coats, mail that needs posting and work clothes
  • making it more difficult for them to wander. For example, you might move the door locks or add a buzzer that makes a sound when the door opens
  • checking their clothes are comfortable
  • making sure they have familiar items around them, particularly if they’ve moved house recently
  • giving them a safe place to walk.

Planning ahead

You can plan for any wandering by:

  • attaching identification to the person or sewing information into their clothes. Identity bracelets or Medic Alert bracelets are two useful options
  • taking a photo of the person, so you can give it to the police if they go missing
  • creating a list of familiar or favourite places they might visit
  • telling neighbours and local business owners, so they can keep an eye out for the person.

What to do if they go missing

If your family member or friend goes missing:

  • search the house, garden and nearby buildings (like a shed).
  • write down what they were wearing
  • tell your neighbours and ask them to watch out for the person
  • walk or drive around the nearby area and check any other places they regularly visit. If you can, have somebody stay at home in case the person comes back
  • contact the local police. Tell them that the person has dementia and let them know if you have any concerns about their safety. The police will need the person’s details, including a description of their clothes.

Once they have been found:

  • tell the police immediately
  • reassure and comfort the person
  • try to get back into a regular routine as quickly as possible.

What to do if you meet someone who might be lost

If you suspect someone has dementia and think they might be lost, this is what you can do:

  • Approach them from the front, so you don’t surprise them.
  • If they’re sitting, get down on their level to speak to them.
  • Speak slowly, calmly and clearly. Use reassuring body language.
  • Say hello and use the person’s name if you know it. Introduce yourself and smile.
  • Ask “Are you okay?” or “Can I help you with anything?”
  • Ask one question at a time. Use questions with a yes or no response. Don’t worry if the conversation doesn’t make sense right away.
  • Move them away from traffic, noise and crowds to somewhere quiet.
  • Ask if you can call someone for them. Prompt them for a phone number. They may be wearing or carrying some identification; ask if you can look at their ID and call the number on it. If you can’t find a contact number, call 000.
  • If you think they’re injured, call 000 even if they say they’re okay. Someone living with dementia may find it difficult to understand or explain their pain.

It’s okay to take care of your own health and happiness. If you're struggling as someone who cares for a person with dementia, contact the free, confidential National Dementia Helpline on 1800 100 500, any time of the day or night, for information, advice and support.

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Last updated
15 December 2023