"It's very scary because they're motivated, they're strong, they're able to get dressed," Ehrlich says. "To keep track of someone like that is just incredibly difficult."
Wandering can happen at any time, under varied circumstances. In a 2004 Mayo Clinic summary of research of people with dementia who became lost, 18 percent were supposedly being supervised at adult day care, a nursing home or other caregiving facility when they went missing. An additional 13 percent became lost while out alone on an outing. Eleven percent were home alone, and 7 percent wandered off while their caregivers were asleep.
Missing older people need to be found quickly
If an older person goes missing, time is a crucial factor in getting them home safely. The more time that goes by, the less likely the person will be found alive. In the Mayo Clinic review, the longest a person went missing and was found alive was four days.
"The greatest risk is that they're not found quickly," says Beth Kallmyer, senior director of constituent services at the Alzheimer's Association. In fact, she says, 50 percent of people who wander who aren't found within 24 hours suffer serious injury or even death.
"It's 1 degree [in Chicago] today with a minus 20 wind chill," she says. "Someone could die very, very quickly under those conditions. In warm climates, dehydration and other really awful things can happen."
When older people have been found dead, they were most likely to have wandered into ditches or wooded areas. Nineteen percent of deceased wanderers were found in urban areas; they'd been hit by a vehicle or were found hiding in places such as abandoned buildings. Exposure to the elements — either too hot or too cold — was the leading cause of death.
Drowning was a significant factor, too. How could a person wander into the water? Visual processing problems that accompany Alzheimer's are likely to blame.
"They may walk into water, and they don't recognize that it's water," says Kimberly Kelly, founder and executive director of Project Far From Home, a national law enforcement educational program that focuses on finding missing older people. "They may think it's a flat parking lot. They may not think it's that deep. They may be so fixated on getting to whatever's on the other side that their brain isn't processing that they're in water."
Much the same happens when dementia patients wander into the woods. They keep walking until they can walk no more, and Kelly says it's not uncommon to find people stopped at a tree or rock that they couldn't figure out how to walk around.