Alzheimer’s patients often come to the attention of law enforcement officials and Search and Rescue personnel because of wandering. As the person with Alzheimer’s loses more and more of their memory, they will often go in search of a particular item, person, or place. The brain changes and visual impairments that occur in people with Alzheimer’s cause an irrepressible urge to wander.
Wandering has proven such a common behavior that Alzheimer’s experts predict that 60% to 70% of all people with Alzheimer’s will wander away from safety at least once during the course of their illness. Many will wander 6 to 8 times before they are placed into a residential facility or an outside, qualified caretaker is brought into the home to help.
Generally accepted statistics used by the Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders Association (ADARDA) show that one in ten persons aged 65 and over, and nearly 50% of all persons aged 85 and over have Alzheimer’s disease.
It would be easy, then, to assume that ten percent of all his searches for persons 65 and older are for persons with Alzheimer’s (and along that same reasoning, half of all his searches for persons 85 and older). This would be a fallacy to assume. The reality is that a much higher percentage of Search and Rescue call outs for wandering or missing elderly are people with Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer’s Lost Wandering
People with Alzheimer’s who wander rarely find their own way home. When they are located in or near their home, the likelihood is greatest that they hadn’t wandered very far away.
Many People with Alzheimer’s become lost or disoriented from their own home or care facility, but an increasing number of people with Alzheimer’s are being reported missing from malls, parks, zoos, and other public arenas. These persons, already in an unfamiliar environment are particularly unlikely to be able to navigate themselves to safety.
Search records and anecdotal history from law enforcement officers show that even when people with Alzheimer’s who wander do encounter public citizens, they are often ignored, considered “homeless” or given aid, but are not reported to responsible agencies. Search reports reflect that once a subject has been found, a variety of items that have occurred cannot be explained by the subject. In a 1997 case in Escondido, California, a subject named Audrey, a 73 year-old woman, was last seen at her care facility wearing pink pajamas, slippers, and carrying her wig. When located nearly nine hours later, Audrey was found to have four separate canceled bus pass tickets on her person. As she left without money, it became obvious that Audrey dressed in pajamas and carrying her wig encountered persons who purchased bus fare for her. None of these people reported her missing, called law enforcement or asked for medical aid. Audrey’s case is not unusual.
Search and Rescue Considerations
Dogs and ScentPeople with AD, especially in care facilities, will put on several layers of clothes sometimes due to a thermal regulation problem or obsessive-compulsive behavior. This leads to borrowing clothing from others. Trailing dogs will have a problem with distinguishing the right scent and may not follow the right person. The interview of the caregiver should determine if person exhibits this behavior.
Man-trackingNeed to get started early. The person who wanders can keep going and going. They exhibit what is called the Pinball Effect. They will walk a straight line until they hit an obstacle like a fence, turn and continue on until the next obstacle, and so on. Eventually they will keep going until they get stuck.
Water HazardsDrowning is one of the major causes of death to people with Alzheimer’s who wander. Because of the Pinball Effect described above and the inability to perceive danger they will walk into lakes, ponds, rivers, and canals. All these potential hazards need to be checked with dive teams and water dogs. Also searchers need to be made aware of the possible biohazards.
MediaIn an urban environment the average missing person will encounter up to several people who have no idea the person is lost. In several documented cases, the person who wandered got on public transportation and the drivers did not bother to take a fare. The person will ride all day, may even talk to other riders who offer help and who will take them to a requested destination. In one case in San Diego, California, a Latino person who got lost trying to get home received help and transportation all the way back to Mexico and was left in the middle of a city he did not know. Thus, the need to get the word out with pictures and descriptions is critical. Flyers are effective.
Other considerationsBe aware whether the person is afraid of dogs, horses and uniforms.