PEORIA — Shelley Vallina wasn’t wearing any shoes on a winter night a few years ago when she wandered out of her care facility.
Vallina, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease a short time later, had recently moved into the facility and didn’t recognize it as her home, said her daughter Rebecca Brooks. Vallina wandered across a parking lot to a nearby apartment complex where she was picked up by the police and taken to the hospital.
Because the scenario is all too common for dementia patients, the Alzheimer’s Association is reminding caregivers to keep a close eye on loved ones this week as temperatures drop to dangerous levels in central Illinois.
“She had on a very thin skirt and no shoes,” said Brooks. “Fortunately it was early winter. It wasn’t that cold. If the weather had been worse it would have been a really dangerous thing,” said Brooks, a volunteer with the Alzheimer’s Association in Peoria.
Sixty percent of Alzheimer’s patients will get lost and wander at some point, said Daryl Carlson, manager of education and outreach for the Alzheimer’s Association Illinois Chapter.
“It’s one of those things you should assume is gonna happen and take precautions,” he said.
Even if the disease is in early stages, caregivers should be vigilant. There is never a clear warning before it happens, said Carlson.
“It's not like there will be a neon sign announcing that we are in the wandering zone now," he said. "They may seem to have their facilities about them as they head out the door to run an errand, and then they step out the door suddenly it’s 15 years ago and they don’t recognize the house because they didn’t live there 15 years ago."
One thing caregivers can do to assure a wandering loved one makes it home OK is to make sure they are carrying contact information, said Brooks. Write names and phone numbers on a card and slip it into their wallets and purses. And since both items can be forgotten or lost, a MedicAlert bracelet or necklace is also a good idea.
“I advocate strongly for those bracelets,” said Brooks. “I wish my mother had been wearing one.”
Vallina didn’t have any identification when she was picked up by the police, but she was able to give her name to hospital employees who found Brooks’ phone number in records from a previous hospital admission.
“The sad part of this disease is they will get to the point where they don’t know your name,” said Brooks. “The bracelet is a lifeline. It allows first responders to contact you.”
Some people might resist wearing a MedicAlert bracelet — Brooks’ mother didn’t want to be reminded she was sick and resisted her daughter’s efforts to keep her safe. In situations like that Brooks encourages caregivers to think outside the box.
“There’s a GPS tracker that is designed for kids, but that doesn’t mean it won’t work for your loved one too,” said Brooks. “Put it on their shoes. It links up to an app on your phone that will show you where they are.”
Other devices helpful to caregivers include monitors that signal when a door or window is opened. Another tip provided by the Alzheimer’s Association is hiding trigger items like coats, pocketbooks, and keys, which reduce wandering in people who won’t go out without them. A busy daily routine also helps since a busy person is less likely to wander, and restricting fluids before bedtime will help reduce night-time wandering.
If a loved one does goes missing, especially in brutal weather, caregivers should call 9-1-1 as soon as possible so an Illinois Silver Search advisory and other public notifications can be issued. The Alzheimer’s Association also suggests a report be filed with MedicAlert+ Alzheimer’s Association Safe Return, (800) 625-3780, an agency first responders check when they locate a missing person with dementia. To learn more about the program visit www.alz.org/safereturn.
Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.