Jim wandered off many times after he developed Alzheimer’s. The first thing I learned as a caregiverwas immediate action was necessary to find him. I can’t count the number of times he disappeared. It only took a moment of inattention, or the misconception that someone else had eyes on him. Whether he disappeared mid-morning at a mall in Columbia, early afternoon at Silver Dollar City, late afternoon at the airport in Las Vegas, or from our home in the middle of the night, a search began immediately.
Unfortunately, wandering is a common problem for people with Alzheimer’s. Sixty percent of people with dementia will wander causing anxiety for the caregiver and creating a life threatening situation for the wanderer. Beginning the search immediately is key to finding your loved one safely. Statistics are on your side since ninety-four percent of the time they will be found within one and a half miles of where they disappeared.
You can take a few steps to help find your loved one. Alert neighbors of the situation and ask them to call you if they see your loved one walking alone. When searching, look in the direction of your loved one’s dominant hand—that is the direction they will usually go. Use Medic Alert+Alzheimer’s Association Safe Return or Comfort Zone (an electronic device). If you don’t immediately locate your loved one, call 911 and report them missing.
To ensure that when you call 911, the appropriate steps are taken to activate an immediate search, legislation should be in place. Legislation geared toward a Silver Alert should encompass all persons with dementia regardless of age. Jim had early onset dementia and would have been too young for the Silver Alert in states that identify only persons sixty-five or older with dementia. Missouri has an “Endangered Person Advisory” which could include anyone who may be in danger because of age, health, mental or physical disability, environment or weather conditions.
If you have a loved one with dementia, it is important to know the laws in your state and work toward legislation to make sure anyone with Alzheimer’s is included regardless of age. The law should also have provisions to activate the system based on a caregiver statement since many people wander before they have a formal diagnosis.
An important part of legislation is training for all emergency personnel. Proper training can make all the difference in finding the person with Alzheimer’s quickly using search techniques specifically tailored to persons with dementia. The immediate emphasis should be on a search of the local area. Quick and educated response is key to survival.
Silver Alerts are state programs designed specifically for vulnerable adults who have wandered. The search for adults is different than those used for AMBER alerts. AMBER alerts use statewide alerts which are not typically needed when searching for an adult wanderer. Also, since most wandering adults, like Jim, wander repeatedly, alerting everyone statewide each time an adult wanders could cause the public to become desensitized. This could do more harm than good by reducing the statewide response in cases where it is needed.
The goal is to find wanderers within twenty-four hours and reunite them with their families. The longer the person with dementia is gone, the chances of finding them unharmed is correspondingly diminished.
More than 125,000 search and rescue teams are activated each year to search for missing persons with dementia. This does not include the countless times that family members search for and find their loved ones. Kimberly Kelly with Project Far From Home estimates that as many as three million people with dementia wander away from home each year.
We were fortunate and Jim was always found quickly by either family, friends, neighbors, and during the mall disappearance, security guards. I was young enough to go searching for Jim, but not every vulnerable adult has a caregiver who can look for them. A system needs to be put in place, nationwide, that will activate an immediate search for vulnerable adults with a goal to provide safe return to their homes.
Copyright (c) September 2013 by L.S. Fisher