New program hopes to help keep wandering dementia patients safe
TORONTO—For families caring for a loved one with dementia, it can be one of the most frightening experiences of contending with the disease: discovering that the person has wandered from home and realizing they may have no idea how to get back.
About three in every five Canadians with dementia will go missing at least once during the course of their illness, says the Alzheimer Society of Ontario, which launched a multilingual program yesterday aimed at helping to keep people safe.
The issue is not a trivial one, stressed David Harvey, head of public policy and program initiatives for the Alzheimer Society.
“If you get lost and you are lost for more than a day, then your chances of survival are very slim,” warned Harvey, adding half of those who go missing for at least 24 hours risk serious injury or death.
That was the case two years ago when a 66-year-old woman wandered away from her Toronto home on a bone-chilling January night.
Her cries of distress in the early-morning hours went unheeded by neighbours and she later was discovered frozen to death on the pavement just a block from her home.
Police found “clawing” marks on the screen door of a house and car near where the woman was found.
Harvey said such deaths can be prevented.
When a person is first diagnosed with dementia, they can take steps to protect themselves if they become confused and find themselves lost as the disease progresses.
That includes having a friend or family member along when going out, taking a cellphone, wearing a MedicAlert bracelet, and carrying identification with the name of an emergency contact person.
“Leave your picture and a description of yourself with someone you trust—something that can be passed on to searchers if you are not found by someone you know,” the society also advises.
Family caregivers also should have a plan, but that doesn’t mean “keeping people with dementia locked up,” said Harvey.
“Recognize that a person with dementia shouldn’t become trapped at home; that people need to be active and to be able to get out,” he remarked.
“So families need to be able to plan to enable people with dementia who might wander to walk out in the community, and that means either themselves going with them or finding a friend to go with them.”
As well, caregivers should have an information sheet listing their loved one’s age, height, weight, and other personal statistics, along with a recent photo, which can be given to police should the person go missing.
Harvey said the public also can extend a helping hand to people with dementia who may have wandered away from home, and become disoriented and lost.
“If, for example, you see somebody outside in cold weather and they’re not properly dressed, or if the person comes up to you and starts talking to you or repeatedly asking questions, these might all be signs that the person has dementia,” he said.
“In which case, we’re asking people to try and keep that person within their field of vision while at the same time contacting the police, so the police can come and help them by taking the person back home.”
Harvey added the Alzheimer Society is working with the Ontario Police College to train officers on the effects of dementia and the best ways of handling people with the disease.