Living Well With Dementia: Staying Safe While Out Alone

Photo: Unsplash- Bruno Martins

One of the saddest parts of a dementia diagnosis is the inherent loss of independence for the person living with dementia.  One’s world starts to slowly shrink where one becomes completely reliant on others.  Thus, caregivers often try to encourage their loved ones to maintain their independence for as long as possible, doing as many different things as they can to do so.  This isn’t without risk, as the person living with dementia’s brain loses its ability to maintain its connections at an unpredictable rate.  How can the independence be encouraged while keeping the person living with dementia as safe as possible?

Dr. Noelannah Neubauer notes that “You can be at risk of getting lost but still live a good life.  It’s making sure you implement proactive strategies that focus on a balanace between safety and independence.”  Here are some strategies or tools that can be helpful to caregivers to consider whether they are helpful for their loved ones.

  1. Registration with the vulnerable person registry:  Most municipalities throughout Canada have a voluntary process where vulnerable people can register.  Doing so provides the local police service with emergency contact information, detailed physical descriptions, known routines and special needs of the vulnerable individual.  A dementia diagnosis is a vulnerability that most registers will accommodate. The information provided will assist officers in communicating with, attending a residence of, or dealing with an emergency involving this individual.  Remember, if someone is registered in this registry, the registration should be updated as conditions or factors about the individual change.
  2. Ensuring that the person living with dementia carries photo ID in their wallet, and their home address, contact information for a caregiver.  If they are lost, they may be able to assist themselves in finding the way home.  Alternatively, if first responders happen upon them, they will be trained to ask for this information, to provide timely assistance.
  3. Consider whether the person living with dementia should wear a MedicAlert bracelet documenting their dementia diagnosis.  This is similar to the concept discussed above, but provides clues for first responders if an emergency arises.
  4. For people living with dementia using smartphones, there is often an “ICE” function (in case of emergency), that can be customized for personal information about the owner of the phone (allergies; medical conditions and diagnoses, including dementia; medications; medical summary sheet; Covid-19 vaccination status; contact details of emergency contact etc.)
  5. Review the comprehensive guidelines that offer proactive strategies to reduce the changes that someone with dementia will get lost. Dr. Noelannah Neubauer from the University of Alberta has worked to develop a set of guidelines which can be found here:
  6. Beyond these strategies specifically for coping with potentially getting lost while out independently, it is a good idea to try to get the PLWD engaged on a daily basis in activities that create routines, and establish familiarity, such as folding laundry, preparing dinner etc.
  7. Avoid busy or confusing places that can cause disorientation, such as shopping malls etc.  If someone feels overwhelmed or overstimulated, they may look for coping strategies that involve rapidly getting away from the source of the stimuli, which, in an unfamiliar location may enhance disorientation.
  8. Establish regular check-in times between the caregiver and loved one, or extra check-ins if the loved one intends to be in an unfamiliar location.

These strategies attempt to draw a balance between facilitating independence and ensuring the safety of the person living with dementia.  With a little planning and preparation, it is possible to extend the period of independence as long as possible.  This is equally important for the caregiver as for the person with the diagnosis, and extending the period of independence in a safe way is a first step to living well with dementia.  Check out our resource library for other suggestions, tips and tricks for living well with dementia.

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