Dementia patients are at an increased risk of wandering away and getting lost. Such wandering can lead to dangerous outcomes such as malnutrition, increased risk of injury, exhaustion and even death.
In the U.S., several states issue a “Silver Alert,” similar to an Amber Alert for missing children, when an older person is reported as lost. Now Australian researchers at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) recommend a similar system for Australia.
“More than 425,000 Australians live with dementia, and a common, potentially life-threatening behavior linked to dementia is wandering,” said Dr. Margie MacAndrew from the QUT-based Dementia Centre for Research Collaboration: Carers and Consumers (DCRC-CC).
“My colleagues and I examined news articles published between 2011 and 2015 reporting on a missing person who had dementia. In that time, 130 missing person cases were reported, mostly men with an average age of 75.
“Of these, only 71 per cent were reported as being found and of those, 20 per cent were injured and another 20 per cent or 19 people were deceased.”
MacAndrew said the study is the first of its kind in Australia, and although there is an argument by some for the health benefits of wandering, including exercise and social interaction, it can be risky when it goes beyond safe limits.
“Characteristics of risky wandering include frequent and repetitive walking without resting, which can be very tiring. Also walking without knowing where you are and how to get back home without help from another person — in other words, wayfinding problems,” she said.
“Wandering can result in potentially life-threatening outcomes such as malnutrition, increased risk of falls, injury, exhaustion, hypothermia, becoming lost, and death. Not all people with dementia who wander become lost but they are much more likely to than their peers who do not have dementia.”
MacAndrew added that dementia patients most vulnerable to becoming lost included those with disturbed sleep, extroverted personalities, a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease or those with more advanced dementia.
“A similar study of newspaper reports in the United States alarmingly found most of the people with dementia who had died as a result of becoming lost were eventually found less than 1.6km (1 mile) from home,” she said.
“A ‘Silver Alert’ system is now in operation in 18 U.S. states so that when a person with dementia/cognitive impairment is reported as being lost media outlets, law enforcement units and departments of transport are involved to spread the message.”
“There is nothing similar in Australia at this stage despite the proportion of the population with dementia being similar. We think it could be very effective. In our study, most people were found within five km of the place from which they went missing although one person managed to travel 800km (500 miles). However, like the U.S., most of those found dead were very close to home,” said MacAndrew.
The findings suggest that elderly people who are living independently in the community, along with those in nursing or retirement homes, may need to undergo routine evaluations to identity risk of wandering, she added.
MacAndrew also recommends that a search and rescue attempt should include careful searching in the immediate vicinity where the person was last seen, particularly outbuildings and garden areas.
“Rapid reporting within one hour of knowing a person is missing is also known to help search and rescue have a better chance of finding a person alive and well,” she said.
The research was recently published in the Australasian Journal on Ageing.