Walking with Dementia


It has been noted that persons with dementia show difficulty walking, either slowing down or losing their balance. Many end up with a sort of “dementia shuffle”, a hesitant leaning forward shuffling step. It has also been said that persons with dementia cannot both talk and walk at the same time. So for example, when she is walking to the kitchen and you ask a question, she has to stop walking in order to process the question and answer you.

Mom has been walking quite well, despite the stroke she suffered last year. She walks well enough that a physiotherapist who saw her weeks after the stroke could not tell which side the stroke happened. Nonetheless, we have grown accustomed to her slower speed of doing things, and take as “normal” today what would have been considered “abysmally slow” in the past.

What I’ve also noticed is an uncertainty about walking that I find difficult to explain. If Mom starts leaning and holding on to someone or something to walk, she suddenly seems to lose her ability to walk alone. Or she forgets that she can walk well.

For example, if I gave my arm to Mom to help her down some steps, when we reach the bottom of the steps, she keeps leaning onto my arm as though she would not be able to stand or walk without it. But if I say, no need to hold on now, she can stand straight and walk well. Sometimes, when we enter a lift, she makes for the wall so that she can lean or hold on. Yet, when I say, no need, you’ll be alright – she can immediately recover, stand and turn well without help.

I think there are two reasons for Mom’s difficulty with walking and wanting to reach out for a crutch. The first is probably physical and due to deconditioning and weakness in the legs. I will have to take her for strengthening walks and exercises. The second reason is probably dementia itself, affecting how well her brain is able to control her legs. Most of us walk without thinking about it. Mom has to remember to keep her balance and walk. That’s why she is okay after I remind her that she can, but without this external reminder, she looks for some place to lean.

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35 thoughts on “Walking with Dementia”

  1. I am so happy to see you back! I was concerned. I remember my mother was a pacer. She would walk so much she would wear you out to watch her but when she began to lose her balance and sight and fell a few times – that caused her to stop walking entirely. They do things in a stutter stop manner as they can only process one or two things at a time.

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    1. Mom doesn’t pace. She sits a lot! Maybe that’s why she’s getting weaker faster than she should. Will get her exercise going soon.
      (Sorry about being away – next time will try to give a warning post and update a little so people won’t worry)

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  2. Welcome back! I have also missed your posts!
    My grandfather has the dementia shuffle, to the point where he is very unsteady on his feet. He had a fall about a month and a half ago, and has been in the dementia/Alzheimer’s ward of the assisted living facility. He is doing better, but they aren’t letting him go home yet.

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  3. I have also missed you – welcome back!!!
    You so clearly painted the picture of this walking/balancing dilemma. I can visualize my father and my sister-in-law (both who died from dementia complications) having the very same issues.

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  4. Welcome back. I missed reading your news. I had found similar things occur with my father. Now since he is wheelchair bound but only stands for transferring I still have to cue him. He “forgets” what he is capable of doing and of the ability he still has. Also he will act how an individual wants him to be too. My brother treats him as if he is very weak and so he act weaker. I treat him as if he is capable and stronger and he acts stronger. As terrible as the disease is it is quite amazing what can be learned as a caregiver.

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    1. Thanks for sharing, Dorothy. You describe exactly what I experience too! I had not realised this was such a common feature with regards walking.
      But it’s true in all our relationships isn’t it, people respond to what we expect of them, good or bad. Only sometimes, it is not so obvious.

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  5. You’re back! So glad.
    Your observations in this post were very interesting. I have a dear friend who is my walking partner of many years. She was recently diagnosed with Alzheimers, so this is very timely information. Thanks.

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  6. That;s a really interesting post – my mother is the same. I had thought it was because she has some joint pain, but actually she is fine getting about if no one is there, or when she starts. It’s only once I have helped her down a step she hangs on. Thank you!

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  7. First of all, thanks so much for visiting my own blog. I commend you on your efforts here, and hope that it helps you and your mother. I would also like to offer a suggestion as to why your mother may be walking as she does. One common problem we see with folks with dementia is that of divided attention. In other words, as we walk about during the day, we don’t get distracted by sights and sounds along the way; we block them out without difficulty. Persons with dementia can’t do that, however. They are spending so much mental energy concentrating on the physical task of putting one foot in front of the other, that they have trouble handling all of those environmental distractions that we usually take for granted. It’s kind of like chewing gum and patting your stomach at the same time.

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  8. I live with the effects of stroke – in myself. I had a major stroke at 41, and the way back is…indescribable. 11 years later, I still reach out for the safety and security of touch. Just touching something that ISN’T moving. there’s something about tactile reinforcement. Trying to describe that to someone who doesn’t live with that fear/uncertainty is so hard.

    When your mom reaches out, let her find your hand instead. there is so much reassurance and love in your hand.

    Bless you for writing this. I love your posts!

    Susan
    https://www.awestruckwonder.wordpress.com

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  9. My mom has that shuffle too. I know much of it is because of the weakness in her legs, but you could certainly could be correct about the dementia itself causing part of the problem. We have mom going to physical therapy three times a week and she hates it. Haven’t seen a lot of improvement yet but we’ll keep hoping.

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      1. My father made the decision today to stop mom’s physical therapy. He believes that mentally it is doing more harm than it is helping her physically. I’m not sure I agree but he is the one living with her and dealing with her decline. I have to support his decision even though I believe it may not be the wisest.

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  10. I remember when I first noticed my mom’s shuffle and I can remember how she started looping her arm through mine everywhere we went – it both saddened me and fascinated me as I was learning so much about the brain and how we take it for granted that we can use it…

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  11. Frangipani, thanks for taking a moment to stop by my blog and “liking” it. The insight you brought to this subject was substantial and in reflection point on. My Mom suffered several “small” strrokes and your post put into words the what the family when thru at that point. — thanks, Bill

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  12. I’m really happy to see you back; I’ve missed you and I hope you find the inspiration to continue writing. It’s an interesting observation you made about your mother. For some reason it reminds me a little of Kris towards the end of her days when she became much more innocent and child-like in her responses and actions.

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  13. Thanks for finding my blog—I’m happy to find yours. I think, in our own ways, we all need reminders of what we can do. The gentle way you remind your mom about walking is very touching 🙂

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  14. Often, people with Alzheimer’s have problems with their eyesight, especially on staircases. They tend to see dark bottomless pits with each step. I held on to my mother and noticed how slowly and cautiously she took each step. Imagine this, as you take each step and look down, there is nothing there but blackness. To add to this is the brain no longer capable of sending messages to her legs.
    Walking alone may help us feel our loved ones are getting better but this disease is not going to allow this so human contact is the best support we can give, along with the messages we give in the tone of our voice and presence.

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    1. I understand what you are saying. Thank you for the gentle reminder. Fortunately, mom’s vision is still good, and I think it isn’t the sight but feelings in her legs she is not as confident about,

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