A third of Hong Kong’s dementia patients had gone missing at least once in the past, experts said on Thursday, warning that the disease will weigh heavy on aging societies.
Dementia is a significant loss of mental skills that affect daily life, and is caused by factors such as strokes, tumors, head injuries and Alzheimer’s disease.
Victims suffer loss of memory, attention, language and problem-solving skills and may be disoriented in the later stages of the disease, forgetting who or where they are.
A survey of elderly people suffering from suspected or confirmed dementia showed that 22.7 percent had gone missing. The figure touched 30 percent for those with confirmed dementia, the survey conducted from June to August 2007 found.
The 380 subjects were between the ages of 60 and 85, and except for one, all had returned home.
“It is a huge psychological stress for families ... and when they can’t find these old people, there is a lot of guilt,” said Chan Wai-man, assistant director for the Health Department’s family and elderly health services.
“Hong Kong is not unique ... this problem will get worse because of aging populations,” Chan said.
Twelve percent of Hong Kong’s 7 million-strong population is over 65, but that figure will hit 25 percent by 2030.
Coping with wandering
According to the survey conducted by the Chinese University in Hong Kong, old people who go missing typically suffer from loss of cognitive functions but are still highly mobile. Those living in retirement homes or who were cared for by domestic helpers were most likely to get lost.
More than 40 percent were found within an hour of going missing, while 95 percent were found within a day. Over 40 percent were found close to where they were discovered missing, while 35 percent made their way home by themselves.
The daughter of an old man who went missing nearly 30 times in a single year said the greatest pressure was on her mother, who had to keep watch over him all the time.
“The longest time he went missing was 8 hours. We found him sitting on a bench sunburnt, exhausted and his legs were shaking from lack of water and food,” said Miss Wong.
A quarter of the families interviewed forbade the elderly person in their home from going out alone but Chan said there were more skilful ways of managing dementia sufferers.
“No one likes to be locked up, they are entitled to a proper life. They are a little confused and you need to give a little understanding, find out what’s bothering them,” Chan said.
“If they say they want to go to work in the middle of the night, you can walk them around the living room. They will forget what they want in the next few minutes and return to bed.”