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Friday, December 23, 2011

No one knows why the afflicted wander, but we know the fear of loved ones becoming lost.

Dementia is the condition that describes diminishing cognitive skills. Alzheimer’s — like Parkinson’s and vascular disease — is a sickness that causes dementia.

Today, more than 5 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. That number is expected to grow to 20 million in the coming years, according to researchers at George Mason University. Though there is no way to be certain, the Alzheimer’s Association estimates that some 60 percent of those with the disease will wander at some point.

Alzheimer’s disease kills nerve cells, hampers connectivity between neurons and damages tissue in the brain, the association reports. Eventually, the brain begins to shrivel dramatically. The cortex, home of thinking, planning and memory, shrinks. So does the hippocampus, where new memories are created. Researchers are not exactly sure why Alzheimer’s disease affects the brain the way it does. It could be the abnormal buildup — and entanglement — of proteins among nerve cells.

Scientists are also not sure why dementia often leads to roaming. But there is this sobering statistic from the Alzheimer’s Association: About 50 percent of people who wander will suffer serious injury or death if they are not found within 24 hours.

In the moderate to severe cases, the wandering pattern is random. Many patients seem to respond to circadian rhythms. At the end of the day and in the evening, there is the “sundowning” phenomenon, during which people exhibit all sorts of difficult behavior, Koester says, such as anger and stubbornness.

Occasionally, people will leave and not return — professionals call it “elopement” — and that can pose added dangers. Most people are found. It may be in a closet – at the end of a suburban street, in the mud, in thick woods, or near a lake.

GPS Shoes For Wanderers

As families and health professionals have become more aware of dementia and its patterns — and lack of patterns — they have devised various methods of dealing with wanderers.

The Alzheimer’s Association suggests making sure patients who begin to show signs of memory loss get exercise and keep their minds active. Certain drugs may slow the advance of the disease. There are practical steps to take, such as putting deadbolts on doors of homes and security devices in senior-living facilities and cutting back on the availability of liquids at night to keep patients from getting up to go to the bathroom. Certain organizations suggest dressing a wanderer in bright, reflective clothing and making sure the person is carrying identification.

As the numbers of Alzheimer’s patients grow, organizations and companies are developing potentially helpful technologies. A shoe company, Aetrex Worldwide, and a firm that makes global positioning devices, GTX Corp., have created shoes containing GPS technology for wanderers to wear.

While we may not understand “wandering” or how GPS tracking works, we can and do understand the enormous pressure caregivers are under and the peace of mind that a device that can locate loved ones is a solution for a problem that is not going to go away.