Elopement in Dementia, What Do I Do?

Jul 26, 2021 | Living with Dementia

Your loved one with dementia may have talked about “going home,” but it was not so alarming until the terrifying day that her wandering turned into an elopement. She left home!

You immediately checked nearby surroundings. Was she in another room? Was she in the yard? No.

When you found her, she was walking at a determined swift pace down the street, and she vehemently announced, “I am going home!”

She did not want to stop, and in her state of confusion, she had resolved to return to the home that she took care of and loved for many years before it became unsafe for her to live there alone.

This was a traumatic experience for everyone involved, and rightfully so, as elopement in a person with dementia always puts life at risk.

Difference Between Elopement and Wandering

People often use the terms wandering and elopement interchangeably, but there is a marked difference between the two words.

A person with dementia may wander off from a safe area, with no intention of going to a specific destination, but when they wander, they typically remain within the immediate surroundings of their environment.

When a person elopes, however, they completely leave their home or facility, often with a destination in mind, or with something that they must do as an agenda, and it can be either intentional or unintentional.

Safety Concerns and Life Danger

If you are worried about your loved one, or even a neighbor who could end up in an elopement situation, your concern is justified as their health and safety is in jeopardy.

When a person with dementia elopes, they typically are not cognitively aware of the weather, nor the clothing or shoes that they are wearing. Prolonged exposure to the elements is a huge risk factor, as well as an increased risk of injury to the body.

Amid an elopement, a person with dementia may feel like they know where they are going, or what they are determined to achieve, but they often end up lost, and this can go on for days—which dramatically increases the risk factors.

Take Action Immediately

It goes without saying, if a person with dementia elopes, the quicker they are found the faster you get them back into safety.

Begin search efforts immediately. Check the surrounding environment, as well as familiar places.

Give the initial search no more than 15 minutes, then call your local authorities and report that the missing person has dementia and tell them about any health conditions or concerns.

You may then be advised to call 911, depending upon your location.

The missing person should be classified as ‘missing and at-risk,’ versus just ‘missing’ to ensure authorities put their resources into action immediately.

In Texas, the Silver Alert notifies the public when an elderly adult who has been diagnosed with a mental condition such as dementia is missing.

This notification brings many more people into awareness of the missing individual and increases the chances that the person will be found more quickly.

This alert is initiated by local law enforcement agencies who contact the Texas Department of Public Safety.

If you are concerned that a loved one or someone that you know with dementia will cross the line from wandering to elopement, do your research and determine who you need to contact if it should happen.

Most local law authorities will perform a welfare check if you feel your neighbor or loved one is in imminent danger.

Keep the phone number for the authorities on hand (consider adding them to your contacts on your phone).

You do not want to spend time searching for this number when you need it most.

Be Prepared to Report a Missing Person

Time is of the essence when a loved one with dementia is missing. When you are prepared with the proper documentation it can help authorities in their search efforts.

Many states, as well as Texas, recommend:

  • Senior citizens 65 years and older have acceptable documentation of an impaired mental health condition (a signed and dated statement issued on a physician’s letterhead diagnosing the mental impairment)
  • Caregivers and legal guardians obtain documentation of any mental health conditions before an incident takes place
  • Families create a wandering person profile containing the name, date of birth, current photo, physical description, documented diagnosis, list of previous residences, favorite places, as well as vehicle information (make, type, color, as well as license plate number)

Always be prepared to describe the missing person’s clothing.

Know the Risk Factors for Elopement

The risk factors for elopement in a person with dementia are common to the condition, with the most dangerous factor being a history of prior elopement(s).

Common risk factors for elopement include:

  • History of elopement(s)
  • History of wandering
  • Restlessness and agitated behavior
  • Walking to the same place, or pacing
  • Repetitive searching for missing people or items
  • Talking about leaving, going home, or going to work

When a person with dementia is able-bodied, meaning they can move around quickly, with or without a walker or a wheelchair, they typically can leave the premises rapidly, efficiently, and when they elope, they can make headway and get further away much quicker than someone with physical limitations.

This adds to the risk factors.

People with dementia that still have access to their vehicle, may start the car up and elope, putting themselves in imminent and extreme danger.

Related blog: Driving with Dementia

Is it Time to Move to a Memory Care Facility?

Safety is a key deciding factor in determining if it is time to move a loved one to a memory care facility.

You may have taken measures, such as helping your loved one engage in exercise and purposeful daily activities to prevent boredom or pining to return to a prior home or community.

You may have also taken preventive measures around the home to tighten up safety, such as deadbolt locks, or installing alarms or monitoring systems.

When these measures are not preventing wandering or elopement, and when your loved one exhibits the risk factors (above), it may be time to move to a memory care facility.

We understand, and we are here for you.

If you are a caregiver and would like to talk about the best options for the future, give us a call at 512-399-5080. We can help you through every step of the way.