A few days ago I heard of an incident that had an unfortunate hum of similarity with many such incidents one hears of: an elder was found dead in a lake near his home; he had probably slipped in, but no one really knew. I was told, “He had been wandering for months. What could they do!” The way of speaking implied that such tragedies are inevitable once someone begins wandering.
We’ve all heard stories of some seniors who start getting confused and disoriented as they grow older, of their wandering off looking for homes demolished decades ago, looking for people and places that no longer exist, wanting to do things like go to office when they have retired years ago. We’ve heard of such wanderers being found after a few days, injured, starved, clothes tattered, with no one knowing what happened in the interim.
We’ve heard of families still waiting for the wanderer to return.
And that occasional sentence, What could the family do! uttered as a statement of hopelessness, and not as a request for suggestions.
Yet, while the tendency to wander may happen, wandering and tragic consequences are not inevitable. There are things that can be done.There are ways to reduce the chances of such wandering, and there are ways to improve the chances of finding a person if he/ she wanders. These are not fail-safe ways, they may not always work, but a reduced probability is worth it, no?
The problem of wandering is so common that I find it strange that we don’t have a more vigorous discussion on tips and tricks for it. Somehow, I suspect that till someone close to us wanders, we assume wandering only affects others; we don’t think it could happen close enough to hurt us. Perhaps the problem doesn’t seem immediate enough to engage us. But the problem of wandering is best tackled by reducing the chance of someone wandering, by ensuring they always carry an identity, and by having quick ways to locate people who wander.
And here’s the thing: we cannot prevent wandering if we only read tips about it after people wander. Tips must be available widely so that when an elder acts confused and seems prone to wander, family members don’t shrug helplessly, saying “What can we do if she wanders!” in a way that shows defeat. Instead, they genuinely ask around, “What can we do if she wanders?” because they know they can get suggestions and solutions.
When my mother started getting confused and disoriented enough to start wandering, I had a tough time. I tried explaining to her that she should not wander; it failed, because she did not see herself as wandering. She was trying to see who has rung the doorbell or walked past in the corridor. She had stepped out for some work, except that she forgot what it was. I would dash out to catch her before she hurt herself (she had balance problems) or got lost, and every time she would get angry at me for stopping her from what she wanted to do. (Looking back, I could have found better ways to distract or persuade her). I tried to make her carry a tag; she got angry again. Once, I asked a neighbor to sit with my mother for around ten minutes as I caught up with an outside errand; I returned to find the neighbor had left my mother alone because “Auntie promised me she would not wander.” My mother, meanwhile, had wandered.
So I started making sure she was never alone at home, and I would lock the door from inside. My mother complained to some friends who then scolded me for mistreating her. “I would not like to be locked in,” one elderly man said. “My children would not dare to do this to us.” This was after my mother’s diagnosis and I explained that she got confused, she had a balance problem, even a small accident could cause a fracture, or she could get lost. He assumed I was some control freak out to trouble my mother (too many TV serials with bad children?) One neighbor even egged my mother to sabotage my efforts and demonstrate her “independence” by walking out, so much so that my mother would sit on the sofa waiting for the moment that the door was unlocked so that she could dash out of the “jail.”
BUT: No one suggested anything I could do to reduce the wandering 😦
The funny (sad?) part is, all these persons who were critical of my (unskilled) attempts to keep her safe, all of them had known of some wandering episode of someone or the other. They knew some people wandered; they just didn’t think my mother was the “sort who wandered” even though she wandered. Because, “Auntie seems fine” or “Auntie used to help my daughter in her studies” or some such thing.
We definitely need more recognition of the fact that people who seem normal in short interactions may also wander.
And we need to get cracking on sharing tips so that when seniors start showing some confusion, some disorientation, families know of these ideas and can implement what is suitable, so as to reduce the chance of an actual wandering episode or tragedy.
An example: A few years ago, a lady wandered because of a door left unguarded for a few minutes, but the family had stitched a label with the name and phone number at the back of her nightgown, and a passerby called within minutes that he had spotted a lady wandering; she was brought back safely. One small action, one small tip, and look how it averted a tragedy! When I heard of this incident, I remembered my futile attempts to make my mother pin an identity to her pocket and her angry protests; I had not thought of stitching a label at the back of her nightgown, at some place she would not notice it.
Yes, we need these tips pooled and talked about.
Two months ago, prompted by my concern about wandering, I had prepared a video with tips on wandering, and also written a rambling blog entry about my concern for wandering here: Diverse responses, networks of concern and support, problems like dementia and wandering. Recently, I created the Hindi version of the wandering video to make the tips and suggestions accessible to a wider audience. I created the video as part of my work on dementia, but the tips would apply to any confused/ disoriented person
This, friends, is my way of adding to the pool. But information can reach families that could benefit from it only if people spread the word. It may seem like a small thing not worth doing–why bother, let others share the link–but perhaps one person you tell, one tip they employ might prevent a tragedy. Or they may get inspired and think of some more tips and share them around. It could begin a conversation, the sharing of a concern that would avert tragedies. And frankly, none of us is immune from such tragedies…
The Hindi wandering video is here: (If the player does not load, you can see the Hindi video on youtube).
The English wandering video is here: (If the player does not load, you can see the English video on youtube)
And if you don’t really believe that wandering is a real problem that it hits people unawares and can lead to tragic consequences, have a look at this presentation by Sailesh Misra of Silver Innings which includes real life examples (identities changed) of wandering episodes in India: Wandering and Missing Senior Citizens: Why does this happen and what to do then
And if persons do wander and get lost, here is another link from Sailesh you may find useful: Blog for missing senior citizens.
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