Alzheimer’s and SAR

The Alzheimer’s Association’s Safe Return® guide describes Alzheimer’s disease as a progressive brain disorder that gradually destroys a person’s memory and ability to learn, reason, make judgments, communicate, and carry out daily activities. As Alzheimer’s progresses, individuals may also experience changes in personality and behavior such as anxiety, suspiciousness or agitation, and delusions or hallucinations.

Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, a group of conditions that gradually destroys brain cells and leads to progressive decline in mental function.
Six out of 10 people with Alzheimer’s will wander. Alzheimer’s disease causes millions of people in the United States to lose their ability to recognize familiar places and faces, or to even remember their names or addresses. They may become disoriented and lost, even in their own neighborhood. They may wander by foot, as well as by car or other form of transportation.
Although common, wandering can be dangerous—if not found within 24 hours, up to half of those who wander risk serious injury or death. Inclement weather, busy roads, and landscape trouble-spots pose a greater risk to the wandering individual.
Brad Dennis, Director for the Klaas Kids Foundation, outlines typical behaviors exhibited by a missing person with Alzheimer’s or dementia:
  • Will usually (89%) be found within one mile of the Point Last Seen (PLS); half found within 0.5 miles. 
  • Will usually be found a short distance from road (50% within 33 yards)
  • May attempt to travel to former residence or favorite place.
  • Will not leave many physical clues.
  • Only 1% will cry-out for help, and only 1% will respond to shouts.
  • Will succumb to the environment (hypothermia, drowning, and dehydration).
  • Will go until stuck; appear to lack the ability to turn around.
  • Will usually be found in a creek or drainage and/or caught in briars/bushes (63%)
  • Leaves own residence or nursing home, possibly with last sighting on a roadway. May cross or depart from roads (67%).
  • Commonly has coexisting medical problems that limit mobility.
  • Has previous history of wandering (72%).
Due to the changes that occur in the brain, people with dementia may have trouble understanding directions and communicating. SAR members should consider the TALK tactics developed by the Alzheimer’s Association when coming in contact with an Alzheimer’s subject.
Take it slow: Approach the person slowly from the front, and speak slowly. Identify yourself and explain why you’ve approached the person.
Ask simple questions: Use questions with one-word answers, and be patient when waiting for a response. Ask one question at a time, allowing plenty of time for response. If necessary, repeat your question using the exact wording.
Limit reality checks: Avoid correcting the person if they answer a question incorrectly. (When checking AxO questions, if they say it’s 1967 and they are in Michigan, accept it).
Keep eye contact: Eye contact and good nonverbal communication will help put the person at ease. Instead of speaking, try non-verbal communication. Prompting with action works well.
The Alzheimer’s Association has developed the Safe Return® program, a 24-hour nationwide identification, support, and enrollment program. The organization works with law enforcement to quickly identify and return to safety a person with Alzheimer’s or a related dementia who has wandered, locally or far from home. Visit the Alzheimer’s Association website for additional information on the disease.