Gone Missing: What to Do When A Person With Alzheimer’s Wanders Off

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My friend Jack said it all happened in five minutes. He went upstairs to look for something in a file cabinet, and when he came back down, his wife was gone. Carol, 77, had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s three years earlier, but the two of them seemed to be coping fairly well together at home.

An avid walker all her life, Carol would sometimes go off on strolls around the block alone. But this time, he waited with growing anxiousness as she didn’t return. After about 15 minutes, he got in the car and began to search the neighborhood. It was now dusk, and the Minnesota temperatures were nearing freezing. Carol had left home wearing only a light coat. After driving around for about an hour,  Jack saw a police car in his rearview mirror, flagged it down, and told the officers about the plight. They took down some information and told him to return home and wait.

He then called a daughter, who drove in from her home four hours away. She arrived at 2 a.m., then mobilized her circle of local friends and neighbors, alerting them with text messages. By then, police from various precincts had visited Jack three more times, asking for a current picture and additional details about Carol’s habits.

Some of the friends who had been summoned made fliers featuring Carol’s picture and distributed them at local businesses. Two young women saw one of those fliers at a local coffee shop—and spotted Carol as they drove to work that morning and brought her home. She had been gone 15 hours and was found about five miles from home.

Carol now wears a watch with GPS tracking and two-way communication capabilities; Jack diligently recharges it every night and helps her buckle it onto her wrist every morning.

Rising Concerns About Wandering

While Jack and Carol’s story had a happy ending, many similar stories do not. An increasing number of caregivers and medical practitioners say they’re concerned about the frequency of people with Alzheimer’s who wander—and in these days of more extreme hot and cold weather patterns, preventing it can be a matter of life or death.

According to recent survey of those who care for family members by Home Instead, an in-home senior care agency:

  • Nearly half, or 46{d0e74b8a3596e4326b45924d39792f257a1f9983beed4201831d386befd3d18e}, reported that a loved one had wandered off or become lost
  • Nearly 1/5 of them had called the police to help in finding a lost loved one, and
  • Currently, 71{d0e74b8a3596e4326b45924d39792f257a1f9983beed4201831d386befd3d18e} are taking some sort of precaution to prevent their loved one from wandering or getting lost again.

When a Loved One Goes Missing

If you know of or are caring for someone with Alzheimer’s who appears to have wandered off, beware that time is of the essence.  If not found within 24 hours, up to half of wandering seniors with Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia suffer serious injury or death.

Those who wander are most often found within a half-mile of home or of the place they left before becoming lost.

Start small. If you are unable to locate the person, spend 15 minutes searching the immediate area. Look in small spaces such as closets and in familiar favorite spots, such as a backyard garden. Enlist help from as many other people as you can.

Also search your own memory for clues. Do your best to recall what the person was wearing when last seen—and whether he or she gave any clues about a possible destination, such as voicing a need to go to the grocery store.

Call 911. If 15 minutes of searching pass without success, call 911—and report that a “vulnerable adult” who has Alzheimer’s is missing and that you’d like to fill out a missing person’s report. If you fail to identify the adult as “vulnerable” and make clear that he or she has a cognitive impairment, police will typically delay beginning a search for at least 24 hours.

Most states have adopted the Silver Alert program or a similar system that quickly and systematically notifies law enforcement agencies, media outlets, and the public about missing seniors who have cognitive disabilities or impairments. Be sure to check whether such a system is in force in your locale.

If you run into local authorities who seem reticent to help quickly—not all are up to speed on the potential perils of wandering—experts advise contacting the Alzheimer’s Association’s 24/7 helpline at 1-800-272-3900; representatives there can intercede to coax them into cooperation if need be.

Send alerts. No matter what the local response, alert friends and family members on your own. A number of services, including the Missing Senior Network enable people to set up an account alerting selected people by email, phone, or text that a loved one is missing.

Preventing Future Wandering

Those who have had a scary brush with wandering or who simply want to be prepared for the possibility are advised to take a number of steps.

Be proactive.  Being proactive in this instance means making a plan that includes learning the underlying reasons for what may make a particular person likely to wander.

Notify friends and family. It’s also important to alert family members and friends who are likely to see or interact with the person with Alzheimer’s that he or she has a tendency to wander. The Montgomery County Maryland Police Department, a leader in senior safety programs, offers sample letters in English and Spanish that family members can circulate to neighbors, telling them how to help should they spot a loved one out wandering alone.

Alert local authorities. Because time is so important when a person with Alzheimer’s becomes lost while wandering, it is also wise to be proactive in informing the local fire department or sheriff’s office that a nearby resident has the propensity; most have forms for just such future alerts. Be sure to include a current photo in the information and to provide a new one periodically; the physical appearances of people who have Alzheimer’s may change fairly rapidly.

Make sure the person is identifiable. In angst-filled moments, a person who has wandered off may not be able to tell others his or her name. Consider labeling clothing with a name and number to contact. Many sources, including MedicAlert and the Alzheimer’s Association’s Safe Return Program sell identifying bracelets and pendants, coupled with an emergency response line. If the person usually carries a driver’s license or state identification card, tape a note to it that notifies people he or she has memory issues—and includes a couple people to contact if the person is found alone and confused.

Prepare the home. Because people with Alzheimer’s may respond in new and different ways to cues and obstacles in their physical environments, it may be wise to make some changes—inside and out—to help protect against wandering.

Inside, consider installing alarms or alerts that signal when a door or window is opened. Move locks out of eye level if the person is habitually leaving the home alone, though it’s important to be sure the person can actually leave in an emergency. Also consider using door decals that help camouflage exits. Some people with Alzheimer’s—especially in the more advanced stages—perceive dark colors as a hole, so may be deterred from using a door with a dark rug in front of it.

Outside, be sure pathways are free of obstacles and lit well during evening hours. And consider installing a fence around the perimeter of the yard if practical.

Prepare potential evidence. While planning for the best, it’s also wise to prepare for the worst: the possibility that a loved one will wander off, necessitating a search. Be sure to have a very current photograph of the person with Alzheimer’s on hand; make it a habit to snap one weekly. Also have a current list of the medications he or she is taking. And finally, keep an unwashed piece of clothing he or she has worn in a plastic bag—essential should it be necessary to send out scent-sensitive dogs in a search.

Where to Get Help

It’s best to heed the advice about taking proactive steps about preventing wandering, which require planning and preparing in advance. However, there are also a few additional resources to consult for advice on finding a lost loved one.

They include:

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