What is “Safe & Found,” and Why Does It Matter for People with Dementia?

If you are caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, you may be unsure how to react to the many new symptoms and behaviors you’ve noticed since their diagnosis. 

These symptoms are not a normal part of aging - they are due to degenerative changes in the brain. In the case of Alzheimer’s, the Alzheimer’s Association reports that approximately 6.5 million Americans currently have an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, and 83% of these seniors are in the care o family, friends, or other unpaid caregivers. 

For these families and caregivers, one behavior that is a major cause for concern is wandering. Because dementia causes difficulty with remembering routines and familiar places, it leads to confusion about where someone is or how to return home. This means that wandering is a common occurrence- 6 in 10 seniors with dementia wander, many repeatedly.

Caregivers can ease these worries by identifying ways to prevent wandering and quickly and safely locate someone who is lost. Thankfully, there are many great resources available to help with this concern. 

MedicAlert’s Safe & Found program is one of these resources.

In 65 years of providing medical ID services, MedicAlert has proven as an expert in reuniting lost individuals with their families. In 2021, 500 people who wandered from a safe environment were located thanks to MedicAlert’s IDs and the Safe & Found program.

Along with strategies to stop wandering, finding a high-quality and widely recognized medical ID such as one of the many choices available through MedicAlert offers peace of mind. In addition to offering the original medical ID to members with dementia, MedicAlert has optional Protection Plans as well. 

These Protection Plans add to the benefits of a MedicAlert ID, with features like the Safe & Found program, a 24/7 Emergency Response Team, emergency contact notification, and a digital health profile that contains all medical information important for first responders to know in an emergency.

Let’s take a closer look at wandering and dementia, and how you can use a MedicAlert ID and Protection Plan to help keep your loved one safe.

Why do people with Alzheimer’s or dementia wander?

To be able to prevent wandering, it is helpful to first understand why someone with dementia might wander. The brain difficulties caused by problems like Alzheimer’s have many effects on a person’s ability to perform tasks independently. 

These brain difficulties include:

  • Difficulty recognizing surroundings – this can lead to behaviors like forgetting where rooms in the home are, or where their home is. A person might even try to leave their home to find it.
  • Restlessness and anxiety – pacing, repetitive behaviors, or fixating on the need to find a “missing” item or “get to work on time” can lead to wandering.
  • Confusion about tasks – forgetting how to complete a task can mean a person aimlessly searches for items needed or where they are located.
  • Forgetting where friends and family live – a person may have a sudden desire to visit someone who lives out of state or has even passed away. Years before, they may have lived next door, and this memory feels like current reality to the person with dementia.
  • Becoming overwhelmed in an unfamiliar setting – people with Alzheimer’s can experience facial agnosia, a type of difficulty with recognizing faces, that can make crowds and new people overwhelming. Confusion over locations and everyday items can add to this.

What steps can you take to reduce the risk of wandering?

It’s easy to see why wandering is such a common occurrence for people with dementia. There are some steps you can take to help reduce the risk of wandering. The Alzheimer’s Association suggests:

  • Provide daily structure and activities – this helps occupy and engage the person with dementia. This can include participation in everyday activities like cooking or folding laundry.
  • Pay attention to the time of day that wandering usually happens – be sure to offer activities and distractions at that time. “Sundowning” is a common phenomenon- agitation and restlessness that occurs in the evening.
  • Avoid crowded or busy locations like shopping malls – this reduces confusion and anxiety. If unfamiliar locations overwhelm a person, don’t leave them unsupervised in these situations.
  • Meet basic needs – sometimes people wander because they are hungry, thirsty, need to use the bathroom, or are uncomfortable. When these needs are regularly addressed, agitation is reduced.
  • Offer companionship and reassurance – especially as dementia progresses, it’s important to make sure someone is available at all times to help with daily tasks and to redirect wandering if it occurs.
  • Take precautions with vehicle use – in the early stages of dementia, tools like GPS can help reduce the likelihood of getting lost. If someone is no longer driving, access to keys should be restricted. Don’t leave the person alone in a car.

How can I protect my loved one?

Along with the above strategies to reduce confusion, anxiety, and other behaviors that lead to wandering, there are some safety tips you can follow. They include:

  • Install alarms on doors and windows (even battery-operated ones will work)
  • Use doorknob covers and safety locks such as hinge locks on doors
  • Keep shoes, coats, purses, and similar items out of sight to reduce triggering the urge to go somewhere
  • Try covering doors with a curtain, blanket, or the same paint as the walls
  • A dark rug or tape on the floor in front of the door can be a visual barrier
  • Alert trusted members of your community of the possibility of wandering so they know to act if they see the behavior

If your loved one does wander and become lost despite all of these precautions, the best way you can protect them is to be sure they are wearing a medical ID

MedicAlert offers several flexible choices of medical ID styles. This includes traditional medical IDs such as bracelets and necklaces, and IDs that can be attached to clothing or personal belongings.  

Using one of these globally recognized MedicAlert IDs in combination with a Protection Plan offers an extra layer of protection and support for people with dementia and their families. With a Protection Plan that includes 24/7 wandering support, your loved one can benefit from MedicAlert’s Safe & Found program. This program provides additional services in case of a wandering emergency. A Protection Plan also can offer:

  • A digital health profile with allergies, medical and surgical history, vaccinations, and more– available anytime, anywhere
  • A printable patient health profile that you can use for medical appointments
  • A 24/7 Emergency Response Team to interface with first responders on your behalf, including sharing information important to a person’s care
  • Emergency contact notification, so you can be with your loved one quickly in an emergency
  • Additional options like document storage (includes medical device instructions), 24/7 physician notification of emergencies, and storage of advanced directives

You can read more and sign up for a Protection Plan here.

How does MedicAlert’s Safe & Found program work?

For many years, MedicAlert has partnered with the Alzheimer’s Association to ensure the safe return of individuals with dementia who have wandered away from a safe environment. 

As part of a MedicAlert Protection Plan, the Safe & Found Program is available 24/7 to assist with wandering emergencies. In the event a person with dementia should wander, families and caregivers can activate the support provided by this program by calling and reporting the person missing. MedicAlert’s team will then:

  • Create and distribute missing person flyers to local authorities
  • Relay critical medical and identifying information to EMS, police, and local medical facilities so they know to watch for the individual
  • Notify the person’s emergency contacts immediately when they are found

A MedicAlert ID paired with the Safe & Found program means that someone with dementia is not alone in an emergency– if they are unable to find their way home or communicate important information, MedicAlert can be their voice.

Enrolling in a Protection Plan is easy and you can see the options available here.

Dementia is challenging, but peace of mind is available.

Dealing with the challenges that are a part of dementia doesn’t have to be overwhelming with the right support in place. Taking the above steps can reduce the chances of wandering and ensure a safe return home if wandering does occur. And by joining millions of other families who trust MedicAlert, you and your loved one can have peace of mind knowing you have extra protection in case of any medical or wandering emergencies.

Start your partnership with MedicAlert today.

Sources: Alzheimer’s Disease: Facts and Figures, Alzheimer’s Association on Wandering, Dealing with Decline of Facial Recognition in Dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease Fact Sheet