By: Fran Bulloff, VTI President
I recently followed a long thread of comments on a Facebook neighborhood group about a turtle found wandering along a sidewalk of a busy residential street. A photo was posted along with requests for help identifying the turtle and what should be done to prevent harm. Speculation quickly abounded as to the type of turtle, but there was immediate agreement that it looked wild and off course and not like a house pet. Another half dozen people thought it was a slider turtle which had wandered away from a nearby lake and should be restored to its water habitat quickly as it is nesting season. How should that be done? Is it safe to handle with bare hands, gloves, or maybe neither and trap it in a laundry basket? Then the next group chimed in that it is certainly not a docile slider turtle, but instead a potentially dangerous snapping turtle. Definitely stay away from handling it and probably best to leave it to the police, since someone could lose a hand. The comments went on and on until the twenty- first made me chuckle aloud: “That’s Gwen. She belongs to my neighbors and they asked me to watch her, but she likes to wander away.”
Crisis averted. This turtle has a name. She is loved by a family and known to a neighbor who is missing her. She simply went astray for a lark or curiosity or because she became lost. No explanation is necessary nor will it be given. Most important, Gwen did not actually pose a threat to herself or others, but she did wander at her own peril out of her safe home.
Why do I share this little anecdote with you? Wandering is a common behavior of disoriented older people. They may leave their home or care community with very good intentions: going to catch the bus to work, walking to the hair salon, taking some food stashed in pockets to hide from the Nazis, picking up the kids from school. Of course these intentions have no basis in the real world today, but they make perfectly good sense to the wanderer who may become angry or defensive when approached by strangers who want to help or neighbors who want to take him/her home. Neither the explanation nor the behavior makes sense to us. Should we assume this wanderer is a threat to him/herself and others? Should we call the police and let them handle the situation? Our tendency is to imagine the worst and be fearful of unusual behaviors, especially in strangers. Our wanderer is likely to break free again and again to attempt to resolve some perceived inner needs. For example, a wanderer may be looking for a nurturing parent to feel safe and loved. Simply diverting by offering a cup of tea is not going to change the wanderer’s behavior. Nor is it helpful to remind the wanderer about reality or scold. Validation offers various techniques such as eye contact, mirroring, and gentle touch to create trust and a safe space to talk about loneliness and missing a mother’s love. With time and Validation, a wanderer may wander less or stop altogether.
In one of her early films now on DVD, Naomi Feil portrays “Muriel the Wanderer” who ends up at the police station. In Communicating with Alzheimer-Type Populations, Muriel is loud and ‘aggressive.’ She rants at the police and explodes in a fit of tears. Suddenly Naomi shifts back to her real self and explains calmly what tone, words, and actions might be used to defuse Muriel’s meltdown. It is easy to be alarmed and fearful of disoriented older adults with strange behaviors such as wandering, but like Gwen they are often members of families and care communities which are anxious for their safe return.