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Pittsburgh winters can be dangerous for those with dementia. Here's how to help

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

A woman in eastern Ohio died last month from hypothermiaafter apparently wandering from her memory care unit.

By some estimates, 6 in 10 people who have dementia will engage in wandering; that’s when someone roams, often because they’re lost or confused. This behavior is dangerous during all times of the year, though there are certain heightened risks in the winter months.

For one thing, people might be more likely to wander due to the shorter days. When daylight fades, many who have dementia experience so-called “sundowning,” which is increased disorientation and agitation. Sundowning can spur someone to wander.

“That can be even more dangerous, as you can imagine, in colder conditions,” said Sara Murphy, vice president of programs and services at the Alzheimer's Association Greater Pennsylvania Chapter.

According to the national Alzheimer's Association, 50% of people who wander will suffer injury or death if they’re not found within 24 hours.

To prevent wandering behaviors, Murphy advises that homes have lots of lighting.Installing locks and alarms can be helpful too. The Mayo Clinic even recommends camouflaging doors with a removable curtain.

Also, family members and caregivers should be aware if someone is more irritated or restless than normal. Often wandering is driven by an issue or desire, such as confusion about where the bathroom is located, or they might be hungry.

On top of wandering, winter weather comes with heightened odds of injury since people with dementia can have difficulty with visual perception, including color contrast and spatial relationships.

“Those visual and perception problems can make it even more difficult to be able to see ice on sidewalks,” said Murphy. “Or realize that ice is slippery, or that snow is not a solid surface.”

Therefore, make sure driveways and sidewalks are clear in order to prevent falls, which can cause serious health issues among older adults.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio where she covered a range of issues, including the 2016 Iowa Caucuses.