'He Was Just Wandering Off': Living With One Of Alzheimer's Most Dangerous Side Effects

Aug 25, 2016

More than 50,000 Kansans suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. Wandering, walking away from home, with no apparent direction or destination, can be a significant safety issue. Six out of 10 people with Alzheimer’s are known to wander. Last month, a man who lives in Wichita was found nearly 20 miles away in Rose Hill.

Sitting on the couch in her living room, 73-year-old Ruby Bennett flips through a photo album of a family gathering. She’s looking for photos of herself and her 77-year-old husband, Orville. He’s upstairs resting after being at the senior care facility.

About four years ago, Orville was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. It’s a type of dementia that causes memory problems. Ruby says the first thing she noticed was her husband not being able to recall recent things.

"He would say, 'You didn’t tell me that,' and I knew I did, and that was sort of the first sign that he was not remembering things, and then it just got progressively worse," Ruby says. "He could remember things that happened ten years ago, but he couldn’t remember things that happened yesterday."

Orville is known to wander at times. The Bennett home has safety locks on the windows and a secured fence. Last month, Ruby was having a conversation with her son who lives in Houston when suddenly she caught a glimpse of her husband in the backyard.

"I saw him climbing over the fence through the window," Ruby says, "and I was talking on the phone to my son, and I said, 'He’s climbing over the fence,' and so my son told me, 'You better go try to catch him.'"

In a flash, Orville was over the fence and down the path.

"He used to drive off, and so we stopped him from driving because he would kind of lose his way," Ruby says. "Then he started – if you turned your back, you know he would be gone, and that started about a year ago, you know, the wandering."

Ruby says her husband would just go.

"He was just wandering off, and he would stay gone for like hours, you know, and that was it," Ruby says. "I had to go find him. It was very scary, it was very scary, and it was very hard because there were times when we would just drive around and drive around, you know, to find him."

It was a familiar routine, even on this day, when Orville climbed the fence. Ruby grabbed her keys, backed her car out of the garage and began driving around looking for him. She spotted her husband walking near 21st and Woodlawn about six blocks away and rolled down her window trying to coax him closer.

"[I said] 'please get in the car' – but that’s the only thing I could do," Ruby says. "I don’t get mad at him, it just makes things worse, but usually I can get him in the car, but this time, I was not able to.

"And so I was on the other side of the street, so I went down the street and turned around, and then I didn’t see him anymore."

She didn’t know where he had wandered.

Breana Jones, program director for the Alzheimer’s Association in Wichita.
Credit Carla Eckels / KMUW

Breana Jones, program director for the Alzheimer’s Association in Wichita, says wandering can be caused by how one’s brain is affected by the disease.

"I go to the store and all of a sudden I forget how I went to the store, I forget how to get home," Jones explains. "Maybe I’m driving, and a roadblock comes up—and I don’t know which way to go because I get confused."

Confused and disoriented, people with Alzheimer’s may take off walking anytime, anywhere, and for several reasons, a change in environment, boredom, or they may be consumed by the idea of going home.

"Even if they are in their home, or if they are in a residential facility or care home, they want to go home," Jones says. "Because, as we progress with dementia, our brain is changing and we’re kind of reverting back to maybe even our childhood. It just kind of depends on where we are at with this process."

Ruby says Orville would sometimes trek the two miles back to where he grew up as a child in Wichita.

"The funniest thing, he would always walk down to his folks' home," Ruby says. "I would find him down there sometimes. No one lives there, but he always had to go down there and check."

The night Ruby couldn’t find Orville, she finally called the police. When someone is missing, the police check with family and friends, make contact with hospitals and check the area.

Wichita Police Sergeant Nikki Woodrow
Credit Twitter

"Officers started doing that that night, started retracing some steps, driving through the neighborhood again, checking all the areas that he’s known to frequent, and nothing was located that night," Wichita Police Sergeant Nikki Woodrow remembers of the night Orville went missing.

Woodrow says she was notified at home right after midnight. She was also sent a photo of Orville and asked to get his information out to media.

"I have a laptop," she says. "I opened it up and started sending emails to the three news stations that we have here, the newspaper and radio stations as well. So after that, I switched over to social media platforms and was able to get his picture and his information out on Facebook, and I believe Twitter, that night to ask for the public’s help in finding him."

Woodrow says the WPD has more than 58,000 Facebook followers.

"So we take great pride in that, and our citizens know when we put something out there, that we need help," she says. "So between the three news stations sharing it, our WPD page sharing it, the radio stations, you know, I mean we can get that information out within minutes to hundreds of thousands of people, the whole community, so it helps us so much."

Friends and the public were motivated to help look.

"And it just so happened, that morning on the 26th, he was found in Rose Hill, Kansas, approximately a little bit before 8," Woodrow says.

Credit Wichita Police Department / Facebook

Finally, after a long, sleepless night, Ruby saw her husband again.

"It was awful, it was awful," Ruby says. "I didn’t sleep at all, but I was really happy when they brought him back home, you know. He looked like – he looked terrible, you know, and he looked like he had been up all night. You could tell he was real tired. His clothes, you could tell where he had been walking, in the field where grass was, on his shoes and on his pant leg, he was wiped out!"  

Ruby says Orville was unsure of all the attention.

"He asked me, 'What happened? What did I do?' she says. "And he didn’t remember anything."

With wandering and Orville's safety always on her mind, Ruby is considering what other steps she can take to keep her husband safe. He used to carry a tracking device but had taken it out of his pocket; now he has one on his belt loop.

Ruby knows that she has heartbreaking decisions to make. Any more permanent arrangements would mean she would miss him terribly, but she plans to make sure Orville is safe--and somehow, understands.

 

Both Sedgwick County and the State of Kansas offer services to help people whose lives have been affected by Alzheimer's.

S.E.N.I.O.R.S. is a free cooperative program offered by Sedgwick County Sheriff's Office. The program allows law enforcement and other emergency services the ability to make contact with caregivers, family members, family physician, to locate keys or a key holder, and be aware of current medical issues and medications in the event of an emergency. For more information visit: http://www.sedgwickcounty.org/sheriff/seniors.asp

The Kansas Silver Alert was created to help coordinate efforts between law enforcement agencies, media outlets and other entities to find a person of 65 years of age or older. For more information visit: http://ag.ks.gov/public-safety/alerts/silver-alerts

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Carla Eckels is assistant news director and the host of Soulsations. Follow her on Twitter @Eckels.

 

To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.