Wandering in Winter

Posted: February 9, 2022

Memory Support

Dangers of Dementia Wandering in Winter

Hot chocolate with marshmallows, a cozy sweater, children gleefully squealing as they play in the snow, these are some things we may think about when we think about winter. But for individuals with aging parents, this time of year may be more stressful due to the hidden dangers of the season for older adults living with Alzheimer’s or Dementia. A new study has found that the winter months influence cognitive function in older adults and that this time of year may worsen the symptoms of those who need memory support.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, six in 10 individuals with dementia will wander at least once, many will wander more. As the disease progresses, many lose the ability to recognize family, friends, and familiar places and becoming confused is common. With this, the risk of wandering grows, and this can lead to potentially life-threatening situations in the winter.

Hypothermia and Frostbite

Wandering off in winter months presents additional complications, temperatures may already be low during the day but as the sun sets, they will continue to drop even further. Those who are at risk for wandering don’t necessarily think about dressing properly for the weather and may leave the house without a jacket or even proper shoes. The lack of proper attire can present a potentially life-threatening situation with the development of hypothermia or frostbite.

According to the National Institute on Aging, older adults can lose body heat faster than when they were young making them more susceptible to the effects of hypothermia. This can lead to more significant health challenges such as kidney problems, liver damage, a heart attack or worse. Many people also don’t realize that certain illnesses such as thyroid issues or diabetes can make it more challenging to maintain a normal body temperature and that certain medications can also affect body heat which makes developing hypothermia and frostbite a real risk in these situations.

Ice and Snow

With the onset of winter, slips and falls tend to occur more often. For an older adult, ice and snow can lead to a potentially dangerous situation. According to the CDC, one in four older adults experience falls each year and the chances of falling again double in this population. Falls can lead to serious injuries such as broken bones or even traumatic brain injuries. But, even if an injury does not occur, it is common for older adults to develop the fear of falling again. This fear can become prophetic. To prevent future falls and they may cut down on enjoying everyday activities they once loved to do. This can lead to becoming more sedentary which in turn causes muscle weakness which then increases the likelihood of falling again.

Older adults suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia are also more challenged with their balance and mobility making a wandering episode in the winter even more dangerous. These individuals also may not have the cognitive ability to recognize if there is ice on the ground which increases the risk for falls.


This population is also at greater risk of feeling the effects of the changing seasons especially winter. Less daylight hours can lead to disorientation, confusion, and agitation in the evening. Occurring in the late afternoon and into the night, this phenomenon is referred to as sundowning and can lead to wandering. The Mayo Clinic identified factors that can aggravate this condition such as:

  • Fatigue
  • Increased shadows
  • Low lighting
  • Disruption of the body’s “internal clock”

Signs a loved one might wander

According to the Alzheimer’s Association the following is a list of common signs that a person living with Alzheimer’s or dementia may be at risk of wandering:

  • Forgetting how to get to familiar places
  • Becoming restless, pacing, or making repetitive movements
  • Having difficult locating familiar places such as a bedroom or dining room
  • Returning from a regular walk later than usual
  • Appearing lost in a new or changed environment
  • Becoming nervous or anxious in crowded environments such as grocery stores or restaurants

How do you know if it’s time to consider a memory support community for your loved one?

For many, it can be a challenging idea to place a loved one in a memory support community. It is common to feel a sense of obligation to keep an aging parent or spouse at home and take care of them yourself. Feelings of guilt can also accompany the thought of placing a loved one in a memory support community. But at the end of the day, it is about doing what is best for your loved one, getting them the best care possible and keeping them safe.

Signs it may be time to consider a memory support community:

  • Your loved one is isolated and lonely
  • Your loved one wanders
  • Neglecting personal care
  • You are exhausted
  • You worry about your loved ones or your safety

Heritage Crossing’s award-winning memory support community offers services that are rooted in a person-centered approach. Care is customized around the passions, interests, and challenges of your loved one. Have questions or ready to schedule a tour? We even have virtual tours available.

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