TAMPA, Fla. — When an Alzheimer’s patient disappeared last November in Jacksonville during his daily bicycle ride, sheriff’s deputies initially approached the search like any other missing persons case.
Helicopters with infrared sensors and bloodhounds combed the nearby woods. Descriptions were sent to other law enforcement agencies, yielding numerous tips from up to 60 miles away.
An unexpected call prompted deputies to change their strategy.
Dr. Meredeth Rowe, an associate professor at the University of Florida’s College of Nursing, suggested that deputies gather as many volunteers as they could, narrow the search field to a mile radius and focus on unpopulated areas such as fields, woods, ditches, brush and ravines.
Heeding the advice, sheriff’s Sgt. Michael Eason and a friend of the missing man’s family organized a search party of 150 to scour every inch of the tightened area. Just over an hour later — after eight days with no results — a team found the elderly man lying in leaves next to his bike, about a quarter-mile from his apartment. He was dehydrated, but alive.
The work of Rowe and Vicki Bennett, a university colleague, is prompting other missing persons detectives to take notice, and dementia advocates are working to help spread the word.
Cases share similarities
The Rowe-Bennett research, published in the November/December issue of the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias, is a review of newspaper reports from 1998 to 2002 that described 93 cases in which people with dementia died as a result of becoming lost.
Rowe, whose primary research area involves developing a monitoring device that alerts home caregivers to a patient’s unsafe nighttime activity, stumbled onto the case study. She and Bennett had just completed the research when news of the missing Alzheimer’s patient broke.
Though not a comprehensive scientific study, the cases shared so many similarities that Rowe said it was easy to develop some conclusions.
Among the recommendations:
- Law enforcement officers should conduct an initial high-intensity search, rather than increasing efforts each day until the patient is found.
- If the initial search is unsuccessful, officers should conduct another search within the mile radius before expanding the area.
- If a dementia patient is lost while driving a car, the focus should be on an area within one mile of where the car was abandoned — even if it is 200 miles away.
When trying to find missing dementia patients, avoid logical deductions such as where a person might be going, Rowe said. “They have no mind-set. If they had a mind-set, they wouldn’t be lost.”
Natalie Kelly, public policy chairwoman for the Florida Alzheimer’s Association, said the group is helping Rowe get the information published in newsletters and instructional materials.
“What we’re trying to do is work with law enforcement to get it a part of their training,” Kelly said. “The immediate response is crucial. Not only will it save a life, it will save time, manpower and money.”
Tracking with technology
Kathleen O’Brien, a senior vice president with the Alzheimer’s Association, said the research offers a glimpse into some ways to more quickly find those who wander.
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At the national level, the Alzheimer’s Association is working to incorporate state-of-the-art technology into its program, dubbed Safe Return. Patients in the program are outfitted with a bracelet that explains the wearer suffers from Alzheimer’s and lists a toll-free phone number to call for help. Someone is always on duty to answer the hot line.
The Chicago-based association is also trying to develop a patient tracking system so a wandering patient can be found and brought home, O’Brien said. The concept, similar to a LoJack system used to find stolen cars, could be incorporated into the bracelet or used as a separate monitoring device.
The association approached a wide range of companies from the telecommunications to microchip industries and asked them to develop a product that could be used nationwide.
“We need something that can be used from Maine to Washington,” O’Brien said. “If some of the electronics work out, then we will be able to identify and locate people much quicker.”
The Alzheimer’s Association has collected proposals for the device, and a team had plans to meet in April to select one design to test.
O’Brien said if the device is to catch on, it must be a marketable product available to the nation’s 4 million Alzheimer’s sufferers for a reasonable price.
“If we develop something that is elitist, we’re not helping the other 3.8 million people,” she said.
O’Brien said she would like to eventually see a comprehensive study on law enforcement methods in wandering cases.
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