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The Wander Years

What to do when your memory-impaired loved one disappears from home

SUNDAY, April 14, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Gone in 60 seconds. It's not your car; it's your father, your grandmother or another cognitively impaired loved one.

Almost 60 percent of the more than 4 million Americans with Alzheimer's and related diseases wander away from home at least once during the course of their illness.

Fewer than 4 percent of them return on their own.

"It's critical that caregivers and local law enforcement organizations have emergency response plans in place before a cognitively impaired person disappears," says Meredeth Rowe, associate professor at the University of Florida College of Nursing and Institute on Aging. "Immediate implementation of such plans saves lives."

Rowe recently analyzed 13 months of data from Safe Return, a program of the Alzheimer's Association. The program was started in 1993 to register cognitively impaired adults and provide them with identifying information to wear or carry at all times. When they wander away from their homes or institutional settings, this identification gives anyone who finds them 24-hour access to a Safe Return staff member who can notify the appropriate caregiver.

Of the 78,000 Americans enrolled in Safe Return, 6,300 have wandered away but have been successfully returned.

Rowe's study of 675 Safe Return wandering incidents shows traditional approaches -- waiting 24 hours after the disappearance to file a police report, for example -- just don't work for this population.

"No one should assume that missing persons with Alzheimer's or other dementias are on their way back home," Rowe says. "They're not. Wandering is dangerous, and can result in injury or death."

The findings underscore the importance of anticipating the wandering behaviors, and knowing not only where such persons are most apt to go, but also the places typically the most hazardous for them.

Rowe found that just over 80 percent of adult wanderers are returned within 12 hours of leaving home; however, another 9 percent remain missing for aat least 24 hours.

In about half of the incidents Rowe studied, individuals traveled one to five miles before being found; another third of them had traveled less than a mile; and the remaining 14 percent were found more than five miles away.

"The places memory-impaired wanderers end up highlight the unpredictability of their behavior," Rowe says. "More than one-fourth of them were found in residential yards, many of them back yards. About 22 percent were found standing in the middle of streets."

Rowe says other wanderers were found along highways and in parking lots, at health-care facilities, shopping centers, restaurants, banks, senior centers, food stores and other businesses.

"Most of these individuals don't recognize the current place they are living as home," Rowe says. "They leave to try and find a place they remember, getting confused and lost in the process."

Wooded areas, forests and other natural areas are particularly dangerous -- even deadly.

"Many wanderers will go until they get stuck, and can literally go no further. They stop when they come to a fence, thick brush or another barrier. If they aren't dressed appropriately for the weather conditions or they're lost for a lengthy period, their wandering can prove fatal," says Brian Hance, associate director of the Alzheimer's Association Safety Services Division.

Rowe's research showed almost half of wanderers died if they weren't found within the first 24 hours, and that none who made it to remote natural areas survived.

"Sometimes a wanderer will intentionally hide in a wooded or overgrown area because they can't tell who's a friend and who's not," Hance says. "Nothing and no one looks familiar or trustworthy."

Both Hance and Rowe recommend you look carefully close to home -- including closets and cars -- but quickly call public safety officials to expand the search at the same time.

"We've still got a ways to go before everyone knows exactly what to do when impaired adults wander away from home," Hance says. "But we're getting there."

What To Do: Find out how to register a cognitively impaired adult in the Safe Return Program Safe Return Program. To find out more about taking care of someone with Alzheimer's and related disorders, check out the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services.

SOURCES: Meredeth Rowe, Ph.D., associate professor, University of Florida College of Nursing and Institute on Aging, Gainesville; Brian Hance, associate director, Safety Services Division, Alzheimer's Association, Chicago
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