The scariest part about caring for someone with dementia is the worry that they may wander. Up to half of those suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia will wander at least once, and once they do they are unlikely to find their way home on their own.
For those with early onset dementia, it can be hard to tell they need help at all. Sometimes, people can seem perfectly capable to those of us who don’t know them but will have family members desperately looking for them at home.
How to tactfully determine if someone is a lost person with dementia
One of the most significant challenges to aiding a lost person with dementia is knowing that the person you’ve seen is someone unable to find their way home.
The easiest way to determine that someone needs help is if they directly come up and ask for it – especially if they can’t seem to remember where they were going, or where they came from. The video linked here from the UK Alzheimer’s organization shows an actor’s portrayal of early-onset dementia, and how many people brushed him off and went on their way.
Not all people suffering from dementia will be able to ask for help, or even respond to searchers who may be looking for them.
Employees of retail locations are well-positioned to take note of the patrons in their stores. If you’re a retail store employee, you likely already will ask how someone is doing, if they need help, and what they may be searching for.
If the person is still there after 10 to 15 minutes with little to nothing in their cart – and you can’t see a purse or wallet – ask how they are again. After 10 to 15 minutes without finding what they’re looking for, even a non-cognitively impaired person would probably appreciate help, while someone with dementia may have already forgotten you asked. Keep questions short and to the point, particularly if the person appears to get easily frustrated with longer questions.
If you’re still unsure if they may need help, write down a brief description of them, where they were headed if they left the store, and what time you saw them. If they were just having a bad day and no one comes looking for them, you can toss your note at the end of your shift. If you hear of a Silver Alert, or someone calls asking about them, however, you’ll have incredibly helpful information on hand to help find the missing senior.
If not in a store, someone who may be in trouble can be spotted in other ways.
Those with dementia or Alzheimer’s generally cannot form short-term memories and make decisions based on what they can see in front of them. This means they may take unusual or challenging paths to get somewhere, often going in a straight line even through bushes and weeds. If you spot someone walking along the side of the road, or in an area where there’s no sidewalk or path, and they do not look prepared for a long walk (in flip flops, a robe, or inappropriately dressed for the weather), it is not a bad idea to stop and ask if they are alright.
Asking with a smile and at a regular voice volume both avoids awkwardness if the person is fine and makes it easier to communicate if they do have some form of dementia. Resist the urge to raise your voice, speak more slowly than usual, or otherwise alter your speech dramatically to try and be better understood. This is more likely to offend than help!
Other signs that someone may have cognitive decline or confusion associated with dementia-related disorders include fruity breath, feeling very thirsty, fatigue, and frequent urination.
What To Do If You Encounter a Lost Person with Dementia
Try to address the person directly, even if it’s clear they have diminished mental capacity. Again, try to speak normally, at a natural volume and rate of speed. Keep your body language relaxed and open, and avoid crowding their personal space. Take your time listening to them explain, and if they don’t seem to understand your question(s), rephrase them rather than repeat them word for word. Try using non-verbal cues; pointing in a direction or at your phone may help where words do not.
If you’ve found someone for whom a Silver Alert has been issued, contact the authorities as soon as you can. If unsure of who to call, call 911 and let them know you believe you’ve seen or are currently monitoring someone for whom a Silver Alert has been issued.
Even if you don’t know whether a Silver Alert has been issued, calling 911 if youthink someone is a wandering senior with dementia is still the best course of action.
Make sure to write down details to share with authorities – where they are or where they’re headed, what they’re wearing, direction of travel, and if they’re in a vehicle, the make, model, and if possible, license plate.
If the person is willing to stay where you are, try to provide them with basic needs. A place to use the restroom and water to drink may be appreciated most. Offer a blanket if it’s cold out or encourage them to stay somewhere with air conditioning if you’re in the heat of summer.
Proactive Ways to Make Your Community Safer for Seniors
Whether you’re caring for a relative with cognitive decline or simply want your neighborhood to be welcoming and safe for our elders, there are a few ways you can be a good neighbor.
If caring for a relative or spouse with dementia, take the time to meet your neighbors and let them know your loved one is at risk of wandering. Knocking on doors and introducing yourself, along with your loved one, helps familiarize neighbors with you and your family. If your loved one wanders, your neighbors will be better equipped to recognize them.
You can also encourage your neighbors to sign up as Q5id Guardian volunteers – it’s free for them to register and would allow them to receive alerts if your loved one is missing. By registering for a Guardian+ subscriber membership, you’ll gain the ability to issue alerts to those within a small local radius, dramatically increasing the likelihood of your loved one being found quickly.
Guardian+ subscribers can also alert 911 directly within the app if their loved one hasn’t been found, which will also share the details in their profile with the operators to better aid in the search.
If the Guardian app isn’t available in your area yet, a tried-and-true option is the “Herbert Protocol information pack”, as it’s called in the UK. The pack should include essential information, such as their name, current address, and their phone number. Other information should include a current photo, physical description, medical history – particularly their dementia diagnosis – and a basic life history, including past jobs or places they’re likely to go. Most importantly, don’t forget to include your own information or that of their carer, so if they are found the right person can be contacted. The information pack is generally given to the police or searchers to help find the missing person.
You can also create a small card roughly the size of a credit card that can be kept in the person’s wallet or pocket. If they are out in the community or attempting to make a purchase at a local store, the card can help them get assistance if it is needed.
Be A Good Neighbor
There are multiple ways that you can help the vulnerable seniors in your area, but the best thing you can do is simply be a kind and caring neighbor. If someone asks you for help, stop and take a moment out of your day to be sure they’re alright.
Participating in the Q5id Guardian app program, even just as a free volunteer, means you’re helping making your community a safer place. To get started with early login setup, download the app via the QR code on our homepage!