Why might a person with dementia want to walk? There is nearly always a reason. What’s more, walking in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing.

In this post, Beth Britton writes about how a person with dementia may feel compelled to walk constantly and how you can best support them.

One of the most defining features of my father’s dementia during the early part of his nine years in care homes was his desire to walk. Back in 2003/04 it was unhelpfully labelled as ‘wandering’. I’m sure some people felt dad was a nuisance as he explored other people’s rooms, tried to find the exit doors and wouldn’t sit down for anything; from meals to shaves.

In my dad’s case it was all the more surprising given that he had been due to have his worn-out knee replaced prior to his vascular dementia diagnosis. Yet this didn’t deter my dad from walking. He preferred to do almost everything on the move, and was seemingly oblivious to any pain he felt until one day he just stopped walking… and never walked again.

Why might a person with dementia want to walk?

In essence, the answer to this question is the same for a person with dementia and a person without dementia. As human beings we learn from a young age to walk; it’s a natural movement to make and something that is healthier to do than to sit for long periods.

The term wandering suggests that the person has no purpose, but in my experience people with dementia (like people without dementia) walk because they are trying to achieve something. The person may not be able to tell you why they are walking, or their explanation might not make sense to you, but their reasons could include:

  • Trying to get somewhere
  • To find something or someone
  • To do something
  • Wanting a change of scene
  • For exercise, or to stretch muscles, move areas of discomfort or to help them cope with pain
  • To engage with others, or to find some peace away from noises or distractions.

This blog ‘Wandering along the beach’ by Kate Swaffer, a lady in Australia living with dementia, articulately sums up many of the reasons a person with dementia may want to walk.

You may notice that the person is particularly restless and wanting to walk in the late afternoon/early evening. This is also known as sundowning. From the person’s perspective, this time of day may represent when they collected their children from school, came home from work, cooked a meal or did other household jobs. For the person, it is instinctive for them to want to walk and it shouldn’t be viewed negatively.

How can you support a person with dementia who wants to walk?

Family carers and professionals often mistakenly believe that the person should be encouraged to stop walking, but unless the person makes this choice themselves it is better to support them with what they are trying to do unless they are in danger.

Tips to support walking include:
  • Be aware that the person may become very fatigued with constant walking and may burn more energy. Offer snacks to help maintain energy levels and support the person to remain hydrated, especially in hot weather.
  • Support people to eat and drink on the move, taking steps to ensure they don’t choke. Use a drinks bottle with an appropriate lid to prevent spillages. Offer finger foods, cut up small, and soft enough for the person to chew and swallow safely. Grazing on food throughout the day in this way can replace meals if the person doesn’t want to sit down and eat a full meal at a set time.
  • Make sure the person’s clothing and footwear is safe for the walking they are doing. Trailing hems or worn soles can present a trip hazard.
  • Ensure the places the person wants to walk are safe for them. Think about floor coverings, uneven surfaces, steps and anything else that could cause the person to fall. Do your best to remedy or remove hazards rather than stopping the person from walking. Remember that a person with dementia may perceive mats/rugs as holes in the ground and try to walk around them or step over them. The safest thing may be to remove them.
  • Walk with the person when you can. The company and conversation may be welcomed by the person. It will also enable you to gauge if they are becoming tired and unsteady on their feet and need an arm or hand to hold.
  • If the person needs a frame or stick to walk, support them to use that as directed by their physio/OT.
  • You may need to prompt the person to use the toilet if they are very engrossed in their walking.
  • If the person is living at home and likely to leave the house, ensure they have identification on them (in a jacket/handbag or any other item that they are likely to be wearing or take with them). GPS tracking is also an option, but this must only be used with the person’s consent.
  • With COVID restrictions easing, you may want to research some new walking routes in different local landscapes that you and the person could do together. You may also want to investigate local walking groups – some may be specifically designed for people with dementia.
  • Read ‘Walking about’ from the Alzheimer’s Society for more information and advice.