Local News

Tendency of Alzheimer's patients to wander presents challenges

SEBRING - It was about 13 years ago that Donna Seeger got one of her first clues that something was different with her husband, George.

She recalled that her husband walked to the golf course and was expected to return home in an hour. But as the minutes passed following that hour, Donna Seeger grew concerned.

"I called his cell phone and asked where he was, and he said he didn't know," she recalled.

She found him after conducting a search.

But on another occasion, she couldn't find him on her own. He had driven a golf cart from Spring Lake to Highlands Regional Medical Center.

In Lake Placid, Joe Durant, who faced a similar situation with his wife, Jackie, who also has Alzheimer's disease, struggles with his own health problems. Durant, who is wheel-chair bound and is on oxygen, gasped for breath as he talked passionately about how much he loves his wife and the painful decision to place her at Lake Placid Health Care Center.

"When I met her, I thought it was like meeting an angel," he recalled.

For years, he recalled, they had a wonderful marriage. Recently - and although there may have been earlier signs - Joe Durant said the first time he realized his wife, Jackie, was ill, was when "she couldn't recognize me."

In the months following that, he said, he watched out for his wife. Sometimes, he said, she would exclaim that "I'm going uptown."

He said he would tell her, "You're not going uptown alone. I'll take you uptown."

But with his health problems, he eventually found he could no longer care for her at home.

For people like George Seeger and Jackie Durant, who have Alzheimer's disease, the desire to wander off is common. And while sometimes that wandering will have tragic results, those who deal with Alzheimer's patients say that various methods exist to reduce wandering and to make it easier to find someone who has wandered.

"Six out of 10 will wander," said Cindy Canales, a program specialist with Alzheimer's Association office in Sebring. "A lot of those times they wander they think they're going to work."

Canales said restlessness may a contributing factor. Oftentimes, she said, they'll wander during the same time of the day.

Nell Hays, public information officer for the Highlands County Sheriff's Office, said Alzheimer's patients often wander towards water. She said that if they are right-handed they will turn right when they leave their home and the opposite is true for left-handed people.

When searches are conducted by the Sheriff's Office, searchers often take that in consideration, she said.

The Alzheimer's Association on its Web site states that several signs indicate a person may be at risk for wandering. Those include a person returning from walks later than usual, a person who has trouble locating familiar places in the house, such as a bathroom, and a person who is restless, paces or makes repetitive movements.

According to an article in HuffPost, it has been estimated that six out of 10 people with Alzheimer's disease or some other form of dementia will wander.

In one case, the article said, Helen Cook, 72, disappeared from her home in Missouri. Cook's husband had reported that she sat on a porch swing while he put his lawn mower away. The article said that she's never been found.

In another equally tragic case, an Associated Press article from February 2014 states that a Georgia man fatally shot a wandering Alzheimer's patient after the man repeatedly knocked and rang the doorbell at his fiancee's home.

The Georgia man confronted the man with Alzheimer's and then shot him when he ignored requests to stop and raise his hands, the report said.

In Highlands County, over the years there's been cases where the person was never found or died before they were located. Fortunately, Hays said, in the majority of cases the wanderers are found alive.

But law enforcement officials and others who deal with Alzheimer's disease patients say methods exist to eliminate wandering and reduce the chances of it. There are also programs that help make it easier to find someone who has wandered.

For those Alzheimer's patients who remain at home, Canales said, one way of reducing wandering is to camouflage the doors and possibly to install a bolts on top of the door.

Canales also said that caregivers should avoid having Alzheimer's patients see something that may serve as a trigger, such as car keys. She also suggests that caregivers park their cars where the patient cannot see the vehicle.

Activities also may reduce the urge to wander, Canales said.

For Donna Seeger, having her husband spend time at Change of Pace, a day care program mainly for people with some form of dementia, has helped. She said she knows that when her husband is at the center he won't have the opportunity to wander. Moreover, she said, he gets good care.

Change of Pace opened in 2012 at the Sebring Christian Church. Participants stay from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. and they have the opportunity to participate in different activities, such as arts and crafts and games, said Cora Schwingel, the director. Schwingel said the participant's loved ones get time to do what they need to do, while knowing their family member is safe.

But in the case of Jackie Durant, her husband said that keeping her at home was not an option as the disease progressed.

"I was in no condition to handle her," said Durant.

Jackie Durant now lives in a secure Alzheimer's unit at Lake Placid Health Care Center, he said. Although he's sad about his wife no longer being at home, Durant said, the staff at the center has been wonderful to his wife.

"They're very caring and they watch out for you," he said.

And the same is true for a son who has been in the care center for many years, he said.

Durant said that despite his health problems, he believes he's lived this long so he can continue to watch out for his wife and his son.

Michelle Jackson, the marketing director for Lake Placid Health Care Center, said it has a 23-bed secured unit with its own set of nurses and activities for patients. They have a dining area and patients can go outside to a garden, she said.

But they aren't able to get out of the unit, she said.

The Highlands County Sheriff's Office provides a program that helps in case someone in a less secure setting, such as their home, wanders, said Nell Hays, public information officer.

Hays said the sheriff's office provides bracelets for people with dementia. Those bracelets contain identification information, she said.

But in some other areas, such as St. Lucie County, there's a GPS device that Alzheimer's patients wear that makes it easier to find them.

Sgt. Tony Cavalaro of the St. Lucie County Sheriff's Office said in one case a law enforcement officer came upon a wandering person with Alzheimer's disease. Because each of the devices has a unique number, the officer quickly found out the identity of the person.

Cavalaro said he has no doubt that there's been situations that if it weren't for the devices, the person would have died.

He said that the devices cost $280 each, but that several organization work with the sheriff's office to raise the money to cover the costs and deal with the maintenance, such as changing batteries.

While Highlands County has looked at such a program, the cost has been considered prohibitive, Hays said.

"The biggest cost is the monthly maintenance of them," she said. The batteries cost $20 to $30 each and then there's the issue of who will make sure the batteries are changed, she said.

"We don't have the staff to do that," Hays said.

But, Hays doesn't rule out the possibility that such a program could be implemented sometime in the future.

Seeger said these days her husband seems less apt to wander when he's at home.

"He clings to me," she said. "He doesn't get very far from me."

And there's also a second line of defense. Neighbors know about his situation, she said.

"They watch out for him," Seeger said.


(863) 386-5834