Alarms: Precautions for Wandering

(The second in a three-part series of articles.)
by Mark L. Warner, AIA

This is the second in a series of three articles on managing wandering. This piece focuses on alarms - important devices for alerting caregivers to attempts by their loved ones to leave home or enter dangerous areas of the house. The first article was devoted to locks and the identification of various areas of danger within the home. The third and final article will discuss unconventional devices, such as diversions and deterrents.

Once you have identified the doors, windows and cabinets in your home that warrant locks, you will also determine that some need an alarm as well. Doors leading to the outside, sliding glass doors leading to the balcony, and even windows that open onto the roof are dangerous for people who may not be thinking too clearly. Oh, yes, and doors to stairways or closets storing dangerous items may also require alarms. One very important point for you to remember:

When you install a lock AND an alarm, the alarm will sound ONLY if the lock is defeated!

Leaving Home

There are several kinds of alarms. The simplest and most inexpensive type that can be placed on a door to alert you to attempts to open it is a set of jingle bells or sleigh bells. These bells are often so delicate that they respond to the slightest vibration (including those occasions when Mom or Dad open the door right behind you as you go out for the mail or newspaper). As long as you are close enough to hear them, they will let you know that someone has just opened the door.

Security is a major concern in this country, yet security systems in our own homes are among the most overlooked safety features. For those homes already equipped with security systems, call the company and see if it is possible to program a separate zone to detect movement inside your home. Many of these systems have interior buzzers or bells designed to frighten away burglars. Needless to say, if intruders are brave enough to enter in the first place, a loud alarm is not one of their big fears. Ask your agent if your system's interior alarm can be replaced with something a little gentler for the special purpose of notifying you, rather than scaring the daylight out of you!


As Alzheimer's disease continues to progress, your loved one may eventually become so frail that he or she is at risk of falling by merely getting out of their bed, chair or wheelchair. It now becomes necessary to notify the caregiver of any and all such attempts to move. Restrictions such as railings and seat belts should be avoided. Imagine how you would feel, tied to your wheelchair or confined to your bed, not even able to roll over. Alarms that can notify you immediately are the next step in order to protect your loved one in these situations.

Tab Alarms

Among the simplest and most inexpensive alarms are "tab alarms." Originally designed as personal alarms for travelers or joggers, they are activated by pulling a detachable tab from the unit. You merely attach a small box to the bed or chair and clip the other end to your family member's clothing. Today, some still work the traditional way, while others are more sophisticated, triggered by tugging on a magnetic connection. Some even allow you to record a short message, "Mom, stay right there, I'm coming to help you." These work not only at the bed, but also the chair, couch, or wheelchair.

Pressure-release Alarms

Next to consider are pressure-release alarms. These are pads, mats or other devices that go under the mattress, on the chair seat, or even under the leg of a chair or bed. They sense changes in weight and pressure. If your loved one gets up, the alarm sounds.

Pressure-sensitive Alarms

Then there are pressure-sensitive devices. These work on the opposite principle – pads or mats that sound when stepped on. Placed on the floor by the bed or in front of a chair, their alarms are triggered when a foot is placed on the pad in an attempt to get up.

Motion -Detectors

Some caregivers want to be alerted only to certain activities -- nighttime wandering, for example. It may be perfectly fine for your loved one to get up, go to the bathroom, or move about the bedroom at night, but not to go into the kitchen or down the stairs. In these cases, you'll want to be alerted to movement beyond certain points. Motion-detectors may be your best choice, especially those that will sound an alarm in a remote location, such as the caregiver's room.

Visitor Chimes

Visitor chimes are typically devices that sound the gentle "ding-dong" that you hear when you enter certain stores. They are intended to alert the shopkeeper that a customer has entered, but they can also notify you of unauthorized motion or activity in the home. Keep in mind that motion detectors can be triggered by pets and even curtains moving in the draft created by air-conditioning or ceiling fans.


Those who are hard of hearing may want to use a notification device that will vibrate their bed or pillow to signal nocturnal activity. These alarms were originally designed for those who are hard of hearing, but like so many other products, their use is limited only by the imagination. They are said to be able to awaken even the soundest of sleepers!

Distance Devices

The most sophisticated devices are those that detect either your family member exceeding a certain distance from their bed or chair, or violating an invisible perimeter. The perimeter or distance might be the entire house and yard, or just the bedroom and bathroom, or the limits of the bed. Some of these systems are so well-developed that even if your loved one does manage to get out of the house, they will also track him by letting you know in which direction he went!


Finally, you can also keep an eye (or ear) on your loved one unobtrusively. Baby monitors were designed specifically for this purpose, but they also serve caregivers well.

Monitors can also help in times of uncertainty. For example, late at night when you hear a sound, you needn't panic. If you are not sure if Mom is up and about or if the cat just knocked over its dish, here's a product that allows you to keep tabs without intervening. Baby monitors are great for listening, but there are also unobtrusive surveillance cameras. Some of these cameras, originally designed to record evidence of child abuse, are built into clock radios and Teddy Bears. Rather than bursting into the room only to find Dad comfortably asleep, from the comfort of your bed you can turn to channel 3 to see what's going on in his room.

Though this article is full of interesting ideas and devices, it is but the tip of the iceberg. There are many more ideas and products that can provide unexpected and innovative solutions to help care for someone with dementia. For more information please check your local bookstore or library for a copy of The Complete Guide to Alzheimer's-Proofing Your Home.

Useful Products

- Sliding Window and Door Alarms

Perfectly Safe (800) 837.5437

JC Penney Special Needs Catalogue (800) 222.6161

- Tab Alarms

Universal Medical Products (UMP) (732) 583.0077

Senior Technologies (800) 235.8085

- Pressure-Release Alarms

Skil-Care Corporation (800) 431.2971

- Pressure-Sensitive Alarms

Snyder Electronics (626) 794.7139

- Motion Detector Alarms

Steinel America (800) 852.4343

- Visitor Chimes

Telko (800) 888.3556

- Wander-Prevention Systems with Tracking Equipment

Care Electronics (888) 444.8284

Care Trak (800) 842.4537

- Distance Alarm Systems

Guardian Electronics (414) 241.4850

WanderWatch (800) 333.9845

- Notification Devices

Ameriphone (800) 874.3005

Harris Communications (800) 825.6758

Mark Warner, AIA is a registered architect and gerontologist, author and international speaker. He is the author of The Complete Guide to Alzheimer's-Proofing Your Home, the first book in the Homes That Care series on age-related conditions and how to create homes for those suffering from them. His firm, Ageless Design, Inc. offers consultation and assistance in the design of environments for seniors. For more information visit our web- site at , call (561) 745-0210 or Contact by e-mail.

Additional Resources

Other Home Care & Independent Living Articles
Other Alzheimer's & Dementia Care Articles
Ageless Design Website
Best Book: The Complete Guide to Alzheimer's-Proofing Your Home, Mark Warner, Purdue University Press, West Lafayette, Indiana, 1998.

Ageless Design, Inc., 1999. All Rights Reserved.

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