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Communities can learn to help Alzheimer's residents who wander

(Brian Champagne/KSL-TV)

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CLINTON — After a Roy man with Alzheimer's died of exposure after wandering away from home for more than 24 hours, a Clinton man is asking community members to learn how to help Alzheimer's residents who wander.

The conversations during 16 years of marriage have little depth now for Stephen and Kay Dunham. "Memory loss started in 2004," said Stephen Dunham. "She was ruled incompetent in 2012."

Dunham said doctors diagnosed his wife with Alzheimer's in 2004. And since then, he has cherished every moment he can with his wife. He wants to keep her safe. "There have been instances where there has been wandering," he said. "We have a bracelet that we've had for about six years that has a phone number that can be called."

So far, Dunham said they've been lucky his wife has not wandered too far. "One time I left the garage door open when we first moved here," he said. "And Kay ran out the front door and she was halfway down the block."

Dunham has a part-time live-in caretaker who helps him care for his wife. He also takes extra precaution to keep her from wandering away from home. Dunham's front door requires a key to unlock from the inside, and an opaque film covers the window near the front door to keep her from being distracted by things happening outside.

Even Bengee, their 9-year-old Bichon Frisé, helps care for Dunham's wife. "He's very sensitive to Kay and will alert me whenever he senses anything is wrong," he said.

Dunham said he and his wife take walks together often in order for her to feel a sense of normalcy. "We let her roam in the backyard," said Dunham. "But we have to padlock the gate."

When elderly loved ones find a way outside the gates of their homes, Dunham said, everyone needs to learn how to help Alzheimer's patients who have wandered away from home. "When you're dealing with any kind of dementia, you don't want to confront people and get in their face," explained Dunham. "The best thing is to get on their level."

Dunham said at that point, try to talk to the person in a calm manner. "Try to figure out what their dominant side is. In most instances, it's their right side," he said. "If you go to that side, that engages a part of the brain that reduces the anxiety right off the bat."

Some Alzheimer's patients wear bracelets that have information to help identify them as "someone with 'memory loss,’” which Dunham said should have enough information to help contact family members.

Right now in the state of Utah, there are over 29,000 people diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. And there are over 142,000 people caring for them.

–Ronnie Daniel, Alzheimer's Association of Utah

As more Americans age, the rate of Alzheimer's will increase. "More people are going to be diagnosed with Alzheimer's as 10,000 people a day turn 65 in our country," said Ronnie Daniel, executive director of the Alzheimer's Association of Utah. "Statistically, one in nine people at 65 will have Alzheimer's and at age 85, it'll increase to one in three."

As the baby boomer population continues to move through those senior years, the disease will impact many Utahns, Daniel said.

According to 2014 data from the Alzheimer's Association, Utah has the highest per capita prevalence of the disease in the country. "Right now in the state of Utah, there are over 29,000 people diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease," Daniel said. "And there are over 142,000 people caring for them."

Daniel also said that Utahns are healthier and tend to live longer, which could mean that Alzheimer's rates in the Beehive State will double by 2025 — a potentially costly and devastating situation for many Utah families to handle. "It's better for family members and caregivers to be prepared for that," Daniel said.

Dunham said he knows all too well the cost of Alzheimer's and recommends people start planning for it in their 40s through private insurance. He said his wife's part-time caregiver is covered by insurance. "The states aren't in the position to afford to take care of it," said Dunham. "We both bought policies when we were in our 50s that make it very affordable."

The Alzheimer's Association of Utah has teamed up with Medic Alert to help patients who wander and become lost. Families can enroll in the "Safe Return" program. "We know that 60 percent of people with Alzheimer's and dementia at some point will wander," said Daniel. "This program doesn't necessarily stop people from wandering, but we have a very high success rate of returning people home safely."

For Dunham, caring for someone with Alzheimer's, especially those who wander, takes a village — people looking out for each other. "Reach out to one another. Have a conversation," he said. "You don't have to have a conversation too long before you realize that something's not quite right." A little awareness, he said, can go a long way to returning loved ones with Alzheimer's to their homes safely.

[listen to ‘A plea to community members to learn how to help Alzheimer's residents who wander’ on audioBoom](
**Contributing:** Mike Anderson


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