Research to help find dementia wanderers

Act fast: Dr Margie MacAndrew says it is imperative that people are reported missing sooner rather than later.
Act fast: Dr Margie MacAndrew says it is imperative that people are reported missing sooner rather than later.

RESEARCHERS in Queensland are exploring more effective ways to search for people with dementia if they become lost.

These include a US-style Silver Alert system similar to a missing children alert that uses an array of media outlets to broadcast information about those missing.

The research comes on the back of a study of Australian newspaper reports in which the Queensland University of Technology researchers found that 130 people with dementia disappeared from in-home care from 2011-2015.

The study, led by Margie MacAndrew from QUT’s  Dementia Centre for Research Collaboration: Carers and Consumers, is looking to understand the circumstances in which people with dementia become lost and what happens afterwards.

Dr MacAndrew also spoke to home-cased carers about how they managed wandering behaviour.

In co-operation with fire and rescue services in Brisbane, the researchers are also looking at overseas search strategies that might be applied here.

Under the Silver Alert system, which operates in 16 American states,  messages are transmitted via radio and TV,  providing vital information such as the person’s physical description and place last seen.

In some cases, roadside messages are displayed, alerting motorists to be on the lookout for missing persons.

The researchers are also looking at Scotland’s Purple Alert app that allows carers to share the missing person’s profile and allows the public to help find them. Included is vital information such as a photograph, medical information and favourite places.

“The Silver Alert and the Purple Alert are just two examples of what’s out there,” Dr MacAndrew said. “And we are suggesting that we do something like it but it would need to work in Australia. We need to look at our resources as well.”

Dr MacAndrew agreed that one of the problems was not reporting people missing as soon as it is noticed, perhaps in the hope the person will turn up.

“And this is what we need to change: the guilt associated with that – of someone becoming lost – and promoting the early alert.

“It would be wonderful if that person was found 10 minutes later – no one would ever be criticised for raising that alarm early. We know that the earlier a search is commenced, the better the outcomes are.

“The point we really need to get out there is that if you think they’re missing, raise the alarm straight away.”

Did you know?

  • The average age of the 130 people who went missing from 2011-15 was 75, with more men (74%) than women reported missing. Reasons for the over-representation of men are not entirely clear.
  • Most missing persons travelled on foot (62%) and were last seen at home (66%).
  • The newspaper reports described 92 (71%) of the individuals being found.  Of these, 60% were found well, 20% were found injured and 20% were dead.
  • Most wanderers were found within 5km of the place from which they went missing, although one managed to travel 800km. 

Strategies to help carers cope

 Dr MacAndrew said that as well as looking at the number of people who went missing, the study examined strategies to help carers in their home to manage wandering more effectively.

She said many carers found it difficult to manage wandering and their greatest fear was that the person would become lost. To manage, they would sometimes tie the person to chairs, restrain them using medication or lock them in the house, which all have associated risks.

“We were surprised at the fact that carers were using techniques like that and their level of anxiety, which was so high and distressing for them,” Dr McAndrew said.

“There was just this feeling that there was no other choice to be able to keep this person safe. It’s what they had to do.

“It’s not surprising because we know it’s a difficult behaviour to manage.”

Dr MacAndrew said the troubling thing about wandering behaviour was not knowing when that first event would occur.

“That’s why we’re suggesting that all people, from the moment of diagnosis, are aware of this potential and are proactive about it – to wear a medical  alert with contact details or think about a GPS tracking watch.”

While little solid work had been done in the area of wandering prevention, Dr McAndrew said strategies that did show promise included engaging the person in meaningful activity and distracting them from the doorway by disguising it with a sheet or a piece of material of a similar colour to the wall. Walking with the person was also effective.

GPS tracking systems for people who had a degree of autonomy were a possibility but there were conflicting views. Some liked the system, while others felt it was a breach of privacy.

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