2017-11-29 / News

When dementia patients wander, timely response is critical

by Kate Evans

This is the third in a series of articles about Alzheimer’s and dementia.

As 5.5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease and others suffer from additional types of dementia, concerns about these residents possibly wandering in neighborhoods, becoming lost in the woods or driving while confused has risen. Fatalities and serious injury have occurred in some cases. Cold weather can be dangerous for any individuals who wander and are disoriented.

Morgan County Sheriff K.C. Bohrer said that Morgan County has four to six cases of people wandering off each year-generally all seniors. He noted that Berkeley County and Jefferson County have many cases of wandering seniors. Sometimes the cases don’t have good outcomes and the people aren’t found until hunting season, he noted.

A November 9 Maryland State Police press release raised concerns about the growing number of people caring for family members with dementia or some form of cognitive impairment and the risk of those patients wandering becoming more prevalent.

Silver alerts

Maryland reported issuing 69 Silver Alerts this year as of November 9. A Silver Alert notifies public safety agencies and the public that a senior suffering from cognitive impairment or dementia is missing. Maryland had 84 Silver Alerts in 2016 and 87 in 2015. Over the past three years, three Maryland seniors involved in those alerts died and seven were hospitalized after motor vehicle collisions.

Maryland law enforcement agencies request Silver Alerts for missing persons that are at least 60 years of age that have cognitive impairment, including a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, and whose disappearance poses a credible threat to their health and safety.

Other Silver Alert factors include whether the missing person is traveling in a vehicle and there’s enough information to describe them and their vehicle, a local or regional alert has been activated and the missing person has been entered into the National Crime Information Center.

Bohrer said that West Virginia doesn’t have the Silver Alert resource since it was never funded.

The search

When someone calls 911 to report an elderly person is missing, a unit is sent to the scene, like with a missing child, to do an assessment, verify it’s an authentic missing person call and that the home has been checked, Sheriff Bohrer said.

The Sheriff’s Department musters resources and units for the search, depending on how long the senior has been missing and the person’s condition.

They call for a helicopter to aid in the search, ask for a search team and also have a bloodhound in the region and in the department that can assist, he said.

Police get a current photo and the person’s medical and psychiatric history and ask family members if the individual has a history of wandering. Officers also ask where a person would be inclined to go or have gone in past disappearances, such as to a previous home, to a friend’s house or toward water.

“The sooner they call, the better,” Bohrer emphasized, especially if the missing person is at risk.

Bohrer stressed that environmental factors are of great concern -- if the senior has disappeared in their subdivision or if it’s a rural area or near rivers or lakes. Another variable in their disappearance can be weather and their exposure to the elements.

Investigations proceed as for a lost child and the investigative techniques are the same for missing children and adults.

Bohrer said for adults the investigation runs a fine line to determine if the senior has the cognitive ability to decide “I don’t want to be here. I’m taking off.” They like to err on the side of caution and enter the missing adult into the national computer system.

When to worry

When should families worry about a senior that has not come home yet from somewhere they’ve gone? Bohrer said families should consider whether it is unusual for the person to be overdue or if it’s out of their normal pattern of behavior. If the person is usually back from a walk in an hour, take action if they aren’t back after two hours.

Bohrer stressed paying attention to older individuals’ usual habits and their health history. If they are beginning to decline or becoming more forgetful or if their habits change, it’s very concerning to families and to police if they’re driving. Family members have to take their keys from them if it’s not safe for them to drive.

It’s also worrisome if seniors are hitchhiking. Bohrer said when he worked for the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Department that he once recovered an elderly person from Arkansas that ended up in Martinsburg.

He noted that typically one doesn’t see seniors with dementia walking outside. They’re seen at convenience stores, restaurants or shopsappearing despondent and reclusive. Police often get calls from businesses and citizens about someone looking bewildered. They often send an officer to make sure those individuals are where they’re supposed to be.

Monitoring devices

Bohrer said there are monitoring devices that can be purchased and installed on a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia that can track their location with a GPS locator if they’re starting to wander. He said the internet or senior centers, Department of Health and Human Resources Protective Services or caregiver resources can provide information on the different types of monitoring systems.

Bohrer said he worked on a homicide several years ago where an elderly woman was gone for several months. They found her when the snow melted. If the senior had been wearing a GPS locator monitoring device, she could have been saved.

Helpful tips

More than half of dementia patients wander at least once. The Maryland State Police offers the following tips to help prevent wandering:

—Provide a structured daily routine of activities.

—Identify times when wandering is most likely to happen.

—Reassure the person if they feel lost, abandoned or disoriented.

—Keep locks out of the line of sight and car keys hidden.

—Use devices that signal if a door or window is opened.

—Make sure the person’s basic needs are met and provide supervision.

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