Background. Wandering has been described as one of the most challenging behaviours to manage and yet a search of the literature in the last two decades yields only a limited number of papers that specifically studied wandering.
Aim. This paper reviews the current literature on wandering in relation to the nature of the phenomenon, attempts to classify the behaviour, the extent of the problem, the profile of those who wander, postulations about its aetiology, and intervention strategies being employed.
Method. Eight literature databases were searched for the last 40 years up to February 2003 using ‘wandering’ and ‘dementia’ as combined keywords. A total of 133 articles was included in the review.
Findings. The prevalence of wandering behaviour was difficult to assess and no conclusions could be reached. The typical wanderer depicted in the literature was relatively young in the older population, more cognitively impaired, more likely to be a man, might have experienced sleep problems, had a more active premorbid lifestyle, and used more psychotropic medications. While studies agreed that wanderers are more cognitively impaired, their findings did not necessarily agree on other attributes. Three major approaches, namely the biomedical, psychosocial and person–environment interaction perspectives, in conceptualizing wandering behaviour can be identified from the literature. Medications, activity programmes, behavioural modification and environmental manipulation have been used as interventions but none has so far demonstrated unequivocal effectiveness.
Conclusion. Knowledge generated through research remains insufficient to explain fully why and when wandering occurs. Variability in how the phenomenon was defined and studied, and the small size of the samples made generalizability of findings difficult. Future research should incorporate a clearer definition of wandering; a specific targeted population with representative sample size; appropriate subject identification strategies; focussed interventions, and better control conditions.