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Immediate Steps to Take if a Loved One With Dementia Has Wandered Off

Time is of the essence when conducting a search

spinner image a man with a cane wandering alone through a park
martonaphoto/Getty Images

One of the biggest fears of someone living with or caring for an older person with dementia is that their loved one will get confused, wander off and potentially put themselves — and even others — in danger. No matter how careful you are, random circumstances happen and fears can become reality.

My friend's father is 79 years old with slow-progressing dementia. His wife needed to take her sister to a hospital emergency room one night, and since her husband can't be left alone, he was brought along. Upon arriving at the hospital, they parked directly in front of the emergency room entrance. Because of COVID-19, they left the husband in the passenger seat of the vehicle, with the car and its air conditioner running. It was more than 80 degrees just outside Las Vegas, where they were.

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After a few minutes, a security officer approached the car and told my father's friend he needed to move the car immediately, which he did. Without a license or having driven in many years, he got into the driver's seat, drove away and ultimately went missing for three days.

Unfortunately, my father's friend was driving a car with no tracking capabilities; he didn't have a smartphone with GPS, either. What he did have was a state ID and $20 in his pocket but no credit cards. What we quickly learned from this experience is that there are a variety of steps loved ones can take — even from a distance — to assist the police in their search when an older person goes missing.

Secure a case number

First, call the police and ask for a detective. Make sure you explain that the missing person has dementia. Also describe their other major medical conditions. It's essential that the missing person be classified as “missing and at risk,” as opposed to just “missing,” in order for the police to immediately put resources into finding the person. Be sure to obtain a unique case number from the police.

"If the missing person has an established routine, those are the first locations you want to check. Likewise, if there are places, like a favorite coffee shop, that they used to go to, check those places as well,” says Nicole Anderson, a certified trauma professional and certified dementia specialist who serves as chief programs officer at Alzheimer's Nevada.

Provide a current photo

Be prepared to provide the authorities, and anyone you recruit to help locate the missing person, with a recent photo, a detailed description of what the person was last seen wearing, and the location where they went missing. If they're believed to be in a car, a description of the vehicle (including its license plate) should be provided.

Check for witnesses

Return to where the person went missing and look for witnesses who might have seen them. Also check with nearby businesses, banks and gas stations to see if they have security cameras that might have caught the direction the missing person went. Encourage the police to check nearby traffic cameras as well, even if the missing person is believed to be on foot.

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"The best way to add a sense of urgency to finding the missing person is to tell those doing the searching about other underlying medical conditions, such as a heart condition or diabetes. Make it clear that time is of the essence, especially if the local climate is excessively hot or cold,” says Anderson.

Distribute a ‘missing person’ poster

If the person remains missing for more than a few hours, create a “missing person” sign/poster and distribute it around the neighborhood, but also post it online. Ask friends and family in your area to post the missing person sign on their Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feeds, and publish a digital version of the sign on any specialized Facebook groups that cover breaking news events, or that focus on senior citizens, Alzheimer's or related ailments. For as little as $50 you can also use paid promotions (online ads) on social media to extend the reach of your message quickly.

In the case of my friend's father, it was a posting on two Facebook groups, called “Las Vegas Breaking News & Traffic Incidents” and “Missing People in Reno/Sparks/Surrounding Areas,” that were instrumental in locating him unharmed at a truck stop, over 100 miles away.

When creating a sign, start with a heading in large and bold type that says “Missing Person,” followed by something like “79-Year-Old Man with Dementia.” Next, add a short description of the person's appearance and where they were last seen. It's important to include a large, recent and clear photo of the missing person's face. Instead of listing your own phone number, instruct people to call the police (provide the phone number), and be sure to display the missing person's case number.

"People with dementia or memory loss sometimes recall memories from their distant past. Nobody knows what triggers these memories, but it sometimes leads to missing people returning to locations from their past, such as an old residence. If it's at all possible for the missing person to return to any of those places, search them as well,” Anderson says.

"Just because someone has never exhibited some type of behavior in the past, this does not mean that they won't or can't,” she adds. “If someone has access to an unlocked door, they could always wander through it, for example. Even if someone goes on a walk and returns home every day, this does not mean that on one day, something might confuse them. They could wind up lost. If you live or care for someone with dementia, always keep your guard up."

Additional strategies to aid in the search

• Have the police reach out to media and issue a Silver Alert, which is specifically for people with Alzheimer's or dementia. This should be done within 72 hours of the person's disappearance. If you try doing this yourself, the media won't be receptive.

• If the missing person is carrying a smartphone, have the cellular service provider track the location of the phone. Likewise, if the person is believed to be in a vehicle that has tracking technology (like GM's OnStar) built in, even if you're not paying for it, call the vehicle manufacturer and ask it to locate the vehicle.

• Contact all nearby hospitals. Ask to be connected with the emergency room and inquire about your loved one by name, but also ask about any John Doe or Jane Doe patients that fit your loved one's description. Since hospitals tend to be part of networks, ask the hospital worker to check their other hospitals as well. Keep calling all of the hospitals every few hours.

• Once you have a missing person sign, bring it to the dispatch locations for taxi companies, Uber, Lyft, United Parcel Service and FedEx, as well as public transportation services (buses, etc.). These drivers constantly crisscross neighborhoods and might spot the missing person if they know to be on the lookout.

• Call the local chapter of the Alzheimer's Association or similar organization, along with any senior centers. Ask for their assistance. These groups have additional information, relationships with media and resources that could be helpful, including volunteers to help with the search.

• Check locations the missing person often frequents, such as favorite restaurants, and leave your sign prominently displayed at those locations.

• If the person remains missing for a while, contact billboard advertising companies that use digital signage. Ask them to display your missing person message along major highways or areas where the person might have gone. At the same time, ask the police to contact highway authorities and post a message on their digital signage. A Silver Alert can utilize the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System in your area.

• If you have the funds, contact a private investigator who specializes in missing persons. Licensed private investigators are often former police officers who will dedicate their time exclusively to your case, while following the same procedures as the police. When calling private investigators, explain the situation. Most will offer a free phone consultation and offer advice on what friends and family can do to speed up the search efforts.

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