SAR considerations for people with dementia.

There are groups that are more prone, or at risk, to being lost and involved with Search and Rescue than others. Some of the traditional SAR subjects include…

  • A child who wanders away from their home and gets lost
  • People who spend time in the outdoors (such as hikers, ginseng-ers, and hunters) who get turned around / get in over their heads, or get injured
  • People with dementia

People with dementia pose an interesting challenge to searchers. The classic scenario involves an older adult who walks away from their home and continues to walk until they physically cannot go any further. When searching for these people, it is important to consider every possible location, to include giant thorny briar patches that would seem unlikely for anyone to ever enter. It is quite possible that the person you seek walked into those thorns, became tangled, and will need your help to escape.

If you are a loved one and/or caregiver for someone who has tendencies to wander, consider actions that you can take to make locating them easier for responders. Such keeping up to date photos that show their face, general appearance, their shoes, the tread of their shoes, and objects that they typically have on their person such as cigarettes and mobility tools.

Consider these things in addition to the following text that was contributed by Max Gottlieb, who contacted MSAR with the hopes that he could provide information on people with dementia. MSAR has no ties to Gottlieb or any business that he represents, but he does offer good information that could serve as a starting point for augmenting care for someone you love.

Why do people with dementia wander and how can we prevent this?

Not every senior is at risk of wandering, but if your loved one or someone you are caring for has autism, Down syndrome, has had a stroke, or suffers from dementia; the threat of losing the person is very real and can become incredibly stressful. In this article I’m going to talk mainly about seniors, but the same prevention tips can be applied to anyone at risk of getting lost. With dementia, there are three main reasons that people tend to wander.

  1. Confusion
    People with dementia can become confused and easily disoriented about their location, sometimes even getting lost in their own community. Take note of the time when confusion occurs because if you notice more confusion or disorientation occurring at night time, then the person may be affected by what is called sundowner’s syndrome. If you know your family member is easily confused it’s best not to leave them alone for long periods of time. Although confusion does not necessarily equate to wandering, it is helpful to enroll the person in a local “Silver Alert” program if you are becoming increasingly worried. A silver alert functions much the same way as an “Amber Alert” if the senior does become lost.
  1. Compulsion
    We’re all familiar with compulsion to some degree, but dementia related disorders can prompt sufferers to feel the need to go someplace else. Sometimes they may feel they need to go to work, or maybe they do not know where their destination is or why they want to go there, but the urge to go is so strong they sometimes just leave. Caregivers sometimes use a technique called redirection, which distracts the patient when they are stuck in a compulsive mood.
  1. The Sensation of needing to go Home
    Sometimes, seniors suffering Alzheimer’s or a related disease will stop feeling at home, even if they’ve lived in the same house for years. They may feel their previous home or even a childhood home is the place they truly belong. This happens with dead relatives as well, forgetting they’ve passed away and claiming they’re going to go see them. Again, caregivers can use the redirection technique and instead of telling the patient that they are home or that the person they are looking for is no longer alive, a caregiver can instead say “we’ll go there later” or “she’ll be coming by soon.” This causes the elderly person to temporarily lose the desire to leave. People that fit into this category often require specific memory care homes because if they are attempting to leave often, they cannot be left alone at all.

As mentioned above, enrolling someone in a silver alert program puts them into a database where the data can then be sent to local police stations or broadcasted to the public. In Phoenix, for example, silver alerts are broadcasted onto official highway message signs. Not every state offers the option for this type of program, but if offered, it is definitely an advantage.

Beyond silver alerts, there are new technologies constantly emerging to help wanderers return home faster. There are bracelets, tennis shoes, long range medical alert necklaces, etc. that all have GPS tracking devices in them. These technologies are not to replace actual human monitoring, but can provide a little bit of extra help in the worst case scenario of someone getting lost. Unfortunately, seniors can remove these devices or something dangerous may occur before they were found, so no device can replace supervision. Constant supervision is a must for someone who is at high-risk of wandering. If you are living with the person, it is useful to get doors and windows that signal when they are opened. It’s also a good idea to place locks outside, out of sight. Always keep car keys inaccessible as a wandering senior is not only a danger to themselves while driving, but to others as well.

Of course, people cannot be watched every moment of the day, but if you plan ahead, a catastrophe can hopefully be avoided.

  1. Make sure the person always has an ID on them or purchase a metal, medical-style bracelet with contact information that is unable to be taken off.
  2. If you and the senior in question are going out for the day, make sure they wear clearly visible clothing to ensure they do not get lost in a crowd if you happen to turn around for a second.
  3. Try to figure out the times that someone is most likely to wander and if possible, figure out the places they tend to gravitate towards.
  4. If the person wanders at night, make sure there is water next to their bed to prevent them from getting it themselves in the middle of the night. In addition, be sure that fluids have not been consumed for at least two hours prior to bedtime to avoid late night bathroom trips, leading to disorientation. If the senior naturally wakes up frequently, guarantee the house is well-lit, even at night.

In the case of someone becoming lost, only check in the immediate vicinity or known destinations for a short amount of time. If the person cannot be found contact 911 and tell them a vulnerable senior is missing and then continue the search yourself. Also, a missing persons report can be filed with the MedicAlert Alzheimer’s Association Safe Return program at 1-800-625-3780. Even if you are not caring for someone directly, if you see a senior who is alone and looks disoriented, ask them if they are alright and contact emergency services if you do not believe they are where they should be. Becoming more aware of wandering, whether it’s planning ahead, supervising someone, or simply asking a stranger if they are alright, can help prevent tragedies from occurring.

Max Gottlieb is the content editor at Senior Planning. Senior Planning offers a free service, helping seniors and their families navigate the complicated process of long term care planning, from finding assisted living to memory care facilities. Senior Planning is based out of Phoenix, Arizona.

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