Dan’s escape escapades became part of family lore.  They were funny but also, for me, indicated that some of Dan’s cognitive skills and desires were still operational.  Part of him was still there for me to hang on to.

Some of the events can be frustrating, especially if you find yourself left behind and stranded.  By spring of 1998 I was doing all of the driving although Dan still had keys.  When he went to a monthly writer’s group with me, it was not unusual for him to become restless, stand up, wander out of the room and then come back. After one meeting he became impatient when I lingered to talk to several people.  Suddenly I realized he hadn’t come back from his latest foray out into the hallway, and I dashed outside.   The car was gone.

He drove home, found I wasn’t there, and drove back into town.  By this time a friend was driving me home.  We passed Dan and immediately turned around and followed him.  He parked where the car had been before.  I ran to our car.

“Oh, there you are,” Dan said.  “I wondered where you’d gone.”  The grin on his face was beyond description.  He had triumphed over all of the forces that bound him.   I sympathized with his feeling of triumph, his moment of being in control of the car and his destination.

The Alzheimer’s patient’s ability to reason is impaired, but a sly cleverness develops, and whether at home or elsewhere, escape becomes a major objective.  When Dan was at the Mental Health Center in Duluth for evaluation, the staff had to keep a sharp eye on him because when visitors departed he would try to walk out with them. His demeanor was casual, and he appeared to be an ordinary visitor ready to leave. One party obligingly held the door open for him, and he made it as far as the elevators.

The day care center Dan attended for a year was very secure, and Dan wore a small device that sounded an alarm if he tried to go through an exit door.

One day when I came to him pick up, Sally, the director, came scurrying to my car before I had a chance to get out.

“Now don’t panic, but……”

I was less panicked than the staff.

Sally had been talking to Dan, turned to say goodbye to another client, seconds later turned back and Dan was gone.  A door from the activity center room that opened into a receptionist’s office was usually kept closed and was not wired for the alarm. The door was open, and the receptionist had taken a bathroom break.  Dan had slipped through her office, down a hall, and out the back door.  Staff scattered in all directions from the center to search for him.  Dan made it several blocks to the downtown main street where he was enjoying the moment’s freedom, oblivious to the fact he did not have on his winter coat although the thermometer was at thirty degrees.

Sometimes  he slipped out the door of our home and headed down our gravel road to the County Road—the one mile walk we did each day to get the mail.   In the first several years he could make this walk by himself and would come back on his own, but in time he became too disoriented to make the walk by himself.  During our joint walks he would speed ahead and sometimes reach home before me.  He would search the house.   “Where have you been?” he would ask me when I arrived home.

One day I stopped to talk with a neighbor, but an impatient Dan kept going.  I saw him pass our driveway, but I assumed that when he reached the cul-de-sac at the end of the road, he would turn and come back.  He didn’t reappear, and I began to worry.  I set out to find him.  I met him walking toward me with another neighbor.

When he had reached the end of the road, he had proceeded down their driveway, into their house and into the kitchen where they were playing cards with their two grandsons.  Dan, without a word, had circled the kitchen table and headed back toward the door.  Our neighbors were neither surprised or perturbed, but their grandsons were speechless.

My fear for Dan’s safety increased, and I found it difficult to complete any task at home when I had to be continually aware of Dan’s whereabouts.  We lived in the woods, and I was afraid he would wander off and get lost.  I installed  a storm door on the front door with a lock Dan could not work.  I installed a stop bar on the back door—the kind that are on hotel room doors that let you open a door only so far.  Dan could sneak from the house into the garage through the breezeway so I installed a dead bolt with the keyed release on the inside and the dead bolt knob outside in the garage.

When the dead bolt was new, Dan would try the door and when it wouldn’t open pound on it in anger.  Liz,a helper in Dan’s care, told him that the lock was broken, and unlocked it surreptitiously when she wanted to use it.  I never used deception.  One day when we were going out, I took out the key and unlocked the door.   “So that’s it,” Dan said.  He hadn’t bought Liz’s white lie.  He was just waiting for the answer.  I found it fascinating that he suspected the deception but did not have the cognitive power to reason out the mechanism.  I also realized that Dan was still a person, someone who connected with the people and activity around him.

I had found the solutions for keeping Dan inside; now I needed to find ways to let him enjoy the outside. In good weather Dan liked to walk on the deck that wrapped around our house on three sides, but there was nothing to keep him from heading onto the driveway and down the road or into the woods.

I fenced in an area of the yard just off the deck at the back of the house and put gates with sliding bolts on the other two exits from the deck.  Dan proved he could still work the simple sliding bolts on the gates, so we drilled a hole through each bolt and dropped a small nail into each hole that had to be taken out before sliding the bolt.  Dan was not able to figure out how to first take out the nail before pulling back the sliding bolt.

Once exits were secure, the summer of 1999 was heaven.  Like the parent of a child, I was always listening for Dan and aware of sounds of his presence in the house.   Now that the exits were secured, when I heard silence, I didn’t have to rush around the house in a panic and then rush to the garage, get in the car, and go speeding down the road to look for him.

More importantly, Dan had the independence to go in and out on his own.

An additional precaution I took when Dan first started to wander, was to order a Safe Return kit through the Alzheimer’s Association, and the Safe Return identification bracelet never left his wrist.  The kit includes a bracelet with the wearer’s first name and the National Safe Return 800 number on it, ID stickers for clothing, and a registration form for the Safe Return Program. If the person is lost, you call the 800 number, and if someone finds him or her, they call the same number, and you are connected. Now GPS bracelets are also available.

  For more information call your local Alzheimer’s Association or call 1-888-572-8566.