Is it okay to leave a person with Alzheimer’s home alone?

Confused woman at home alone

This is a tricky question. The short answer is it depends. It depends on a lot of things. But if you are asking the question, the answer is probably no.

Use this assessment questionnaire. These issues are difficult to think about, let alone deal with. But if you have a sense of unease when thinking about your care partner’s abilities, it’s time to put safety precautions in place.

  • How far along in the disease is the person? If the person is in the moderate phase of dementia, the phase when they need help with basic daily activities such as bathing and brushing their teeth, it’s not safe to leave him or her home alone.
  • Do they get easily confused?
  • Do they get lost walking around the neighborhood or in the house?
  • Do they follow you throughout the house?
  • Could they make a phone call if they need help or become anxious?
  • Do they still cook, make coffee or use the microwave? Do they forget to turn off the stove or oven? If so, they should not be allowed to cook any longer.
  • Are they able to make themselves something to eat? If not, could they find food that has been prepared for them, or are they able to find a snack?
  • Do they wander?
  • Do they recognize dangerous situations such as fire?
  • Are they susceptible to scam phone calls? Are they apt to provide private information?
  • Can the person engage in enjoyable hobbies or activities such as gardening, knitting, wood work?
  • Can they distinguish between a family, friend, neighbor and stranger if someone comes to the door?
  • Is it easy for them to toilet without assistance?
  • If there were an emergency in the house, could they leave and seek shelter?
  • Is there a possibility the person could damage or destroy your personal property if they got highly agitated?

Keep your care partner safe from wandering

There’s nothing more frightening than discovering that your care partner has wandered out of the house and is nowhere to be found. If the weather is very hot or very cold this could turn into an emergency situation. Or if the person needs a medication at a specific time, it could become a matter of life or death.

Here are some ways to reduce this risk.

Never leave your care partner alone in the car, even for a quick stop.

Hide the car keys. I had a neighbor whose husband took the car keys and drove off into an isolated area. Although the car was found, he was never seen again. It was an unspeakable tragedy.

Camouflage the exterior doors with curtains, a poster, or sign that says, “Stop,” or “Do not enter.

Don’t leave shoes, hats, coats, or keys near the exit doors. All are reminders of leaving home.

Inform your neighbors so if they see your care partner wandering around the neighborhood, they can alert you or the police, or gently guide the person home.

Have your care partner carry a photo ID, and wear a medical bracelet. Put labels inside their coat, hat, etc.,

Project Lifesaver is a program offered by police departments. Some police departments offer wristbands at discounted rates or at no charge. To find out or enroll in Project Lifesaver, contact your local police department and ask if they participate. Call Project Lifesaver International Headquarters at (757) 546-5502 or visit the Project Lifesaver website.

Enroll in the MedicAlert https://www.medicalert.org/ and Alzheimer’s Association’s safe-return program. Read about it here: https://www.alz.org/help-support/caregiving/safety/medicalert-with-24-7-wandering-support. For a fee, participants receive an identification bracelet, necklace or clothing tags and access to 24-hour support in case of emergency. You also might have your loved one wear a GPS or other tracking device.

Read Dr. Laura Struble’s excellent article “How to Minimize Wandering in a Senior with Dementia” in which she says it’s important to first observe the person and try to figure out why your care partner is wandering or trying to leave, what they are trying to achieve, and where they want to go. https://www.agingcare.com/articles/help-a-senior-with-dementia-who-wanders-167541.htm

Safety first is always a good motto. It might take a little work and effort to put these safety measures into place, but it will definitely be worth it for your own peace of mind and for the health and safety of your care partner.

Care for the caregiver

If you are the caregiver of someone at home, it’s vital that you take care of yourself and get out of the house, hopefully, for at least a walk every day. During the coronavirus pandemic, you aren’t doing as much as you normally would outside of the house, but try to take a daily walk.

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If you aren’t able to leave your care partner even for a short walk, it’s time to get respite care. When the time came for my husband to need full-time care, I hired someone to be with him husband twice a week so I could get out of the house. Is there a neighbor who would be willing to come in for 30 to 60 minutes twice a week? This might be tougher during the pandemic. But while the weather is still warm, a care person could take your loved one for an outing, sit on the porch with them, or go for a drive.

Be safe. Be well. Take care.

Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia”—Winner of the 2018 Book Excellence Award in Self-Help—in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.

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