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When Elders Go Missing

Each year, hundreds wander away from their homes. Too many are never seen again

Ingrassia believes her father hopped onto one of the several bus lines that run just a couple of blocks from her parents' house and could have taken him anywhere in New York. Or maybe Giuseppe, who loved sitting by the water, wandered into the nearby bay. No one knows, and that's the hardest part.

"I wake up in the morning and I'm not breathing," says Ingrassia. "He was so involved in our lives. He was such an active grandfather. And now there's just this empty void."

A growing problem

Giuseppe Russo is one of the more than 300 people over age 65 with a mental condition such as dementia who go missing each year, according to the FBI. After a period of decline in the early part of the last decade, the number of missing persons in this category started a steady rise in 2004. That year, 235 people over age 65 were reported missing. In 2009, the number rose to 354, a 51 percent increase. The numbers mirror the rise in Alzheimer's diagnoses — from 411,000 new cases in 2000 to 454,000 in 2010, according to the Alzheimer's Association. Currently, 5.1 million Americans over age 65 are living with the disease.

The vast majority of people reported missing in this category are found — most alive — but a small percentage never are. Over the past 10 years, the FBI reports, 41 people in this category — over 65 with a mental condition that includes dementia — have never been found. The Russos pray that Joe doesn't become another such statistic.

"We just don't know what to do," says Ingrassia, mother of three. "We want a funeral if there is one. We want to find him if there is a way to find him. We want closure."

An unavoidable consequence

Wandering is a common symptom of Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia, says Amy Ehrlich, M.D., interim division chief for geriatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. "The medications aren't going to keep you from wandering," she says. "Wandering is a behavioral symptom that's extremely hard to control."

Wandering occurs when people start losing sense of time and space. They get days and nights mixed up, as it seems Giuseppe did when he started eating breakfast in the middle of the night. They talk about wanting to go "home," which for them means a childhood home or some other place they lived long ago. Patients will seem agitated and unable to settle down. Pacing is common. A change in medical status can trigger the wandering also. For example, something as seemingly benign as ear wax impaction that compromises a person's ability to hear can worsen confusion and send a person out the door, Ehrlich says.

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