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Wandering and Dementia: A George Mason University Study

Wandering and Dementia: A George Mason University Study

Wandering is a common behavior among individuals living with Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and other dementias. Six in 10 people with dementia will wander one time and many will wander repeatedly. Everyone with dementia is at risk of wandering and wandering behavior can be dangerous and stressful for people with dementia and their family caregivers. Faculty and students at George Mason University have been conducting research to gain a better understanding about wandering as it relates to dementia, by tracking the movement patterns of people with dementia who are participants in their study.

GPS trackers provide detailed location data that can be used to build models capable of predicting likely areas in which searching for missing loved ones needs to be done. The study at George Mason University, College of Health and Human Services, focuses on collecting initial tracking data for people with dementia using GPS trackers, along with their medical history and sociodemographic data. This data is used to test the feasibility of finding patterns of movement and wandering. The pilot project is intended to initiate a long-term data collection and research project to improve safety and model the progression of dementia. The investigators created procedures needed for participant enrollment and data collection for the project. They continue to investigate a number of methodological aspects of modeling movements of people with AD and other dementias. Specifically, they are developing novel approaches to analyzing GPS data by focusing on linking participant movements to landscape information extracted from maps, and improving prediction of location, when a person is missing for up to five hours. Local movement trajectories around frequently visited locations is also being modeled.

With the onset of COVID-19, it continues to be important to understand wandering and monitor walking in people with dementia. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, unsafe wandering occurs when a person living with dementia gets lost, goes into inappropriate places or leaves a safe environment. The risk for unsafe wandering may increase when the person with dementia becomes upset, agitated or faces a stressful situation, which may become more common in emergency situations, like the COVID-19 pandemic. Below are some of the warning signs indicating that your loved one with dementia may be at risk for wandering:

  • Returns from a regular walk or drive later than usual
  • Forgets how to get to familiar places
  • Talks about fulfilling former obligations, such as going to work
  • Tries or wants to "go home," even when at home
  • Is restless, paces or makes repetitive movements
  • Has difficulty locating familiar places like the bathroom, bedroom or dining room
  • Asks the whereabouts of past friends and family
  • Acts as if doing a hobby or chore, but nothing gets done (e.g., moves around pots and dirt without actually planting anything)

According to participants in our study, COVID-19 has caused fear among some caregivers. For example, caregivers expressed gratitude for having a tracking device, but stated that “going outside can be scary.” The caregivers see people out in their neighborhoods not wearing masks – kids playing on the sidewalks and others. Some caregivers make a point to go out on walks with their person with dementia in the early mornings or the evenings when there are no people outside.

If you have any questions or would like more information about the George Mason study, please contact Cathy Tompkins, ctompkin@gmu.edu.

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