Dementia, wandering and missing persons
Dementia is a loss of mental ability severe enough to interfere with the normal activities of daily living. People with dementia are at risk of wandering and getting lost. Dementia is usually associated with people aged 64 and over, but people from their mid 40’s can also suffer from it. Several diseases and conditions can result in dementia, with very similar behaviour patterns.
If a person suffering from dementia goes missing or wandering:
- do not wait 24 hours – call immediately to report the person missing
- file a Missing Persons Report at a police station
- be prepared to answer questions from police, such as:
- history of previous wandering
- missing person's state of mind
- the last three addresses that the missing person lived at
- any registered wandering devices or bracelets
- known frequented places
Dementia and behaviour
The condition most commonly associated with dementia is Alzheimer's disease, a degenerative disease affecting the brain. It is important to remember that while anyone who suffers from Alzheimer's can be said to have dementia, not everyone who suffers from dementia has Alzheimer's.
Examples of other diseases and conditions where dementia symptoms may be seen are:
- Pick's disease
- vascular dementia (mini strokes)
- fluid on the brain (hydrocephalus)
- Korsakoff's Syndrome and other alcohol related dementia
- brain injury
- as a result of a brain tumour
- AIDS related dementia
How dementia affects behaviour
People with dementia are at risk of wandering and getting lost because they are disoriented, restless, agitated and possibly anxious. Once lost, they are in danger of injury and even death from falls, accidents and exposure to unfavourable weather conditions.
The acute medical conditions associated with this illness compound the likelihood of serious negative outcomes. Disturbed sleep patterns can result in unexpected wandering at night. Some dementia sufferers can believe they are looking for something (such as a familiar place, a familiar person or something to eat) or think they need to fulfil former obligations. This results in goal-driven wandering which can be industrious and purposeful, where the person is searching for something or someone.
Others may engage in random wandering, which can sometimes have no real purpose. They may be attracted by something initially then become quickly distracted by something else.
A mild dementia sufferer is someone who is still generally capable of looking after themselves, even if they have people coming to give them help from time to time.
Places they are most likely to be found will depend upon their personal motivation. As they can largely look after themselves they are also still capable of interacting with the outside world. They are therefore more likely to:
- make use of public transport
- travel further distances, in some instances interstate or overseas
- use vehicles
A severe dementia sufferer is someone who is no longer capable of looking after themselves. They need full-time supervision or live-in help.
They are most likely to be found in locations indicative of random wandering, regardless of whether they believe their motivation is random or goal driven, as they will suffer a high degree of delusion.
Tracking devices for wanderers
A solution to addressing wanderers and to help keep your loved one safe and secure, is the use of a location or tracking device. These devices have GPS capabilities and can be provided to love ones who have a medical need such as Alzheimer’s, and allows them to be found quickly and safely.
Tracking or location devices are not provided by the police but may be purchased online or from a store or supplier who sell such devices.
When a relative or friend is reported missing the emotional impact on families and friends can be considerable. Feelings of fear, anger, frustration, guilt, blame and helplessness are some of the reactions people experience. These responses are normal, and people react to situations in different ways. It is challenging to live with uncertainty, so you can seek professional help to provide additional strength and support.
The following information may be helpful for families and friends of missing persons:
- encourage family and friends of missing persons to talk to someone about how they are feeling
- take care of each other, each person can be affected in their own way
- encourage children and teenagers to talk about their feelings, even though they are sometimes afraid of upsetting their parents or other family members
- encourage young people to show their feelings and talk openly
- take one day at a time and avoid making any significant life changes
- try and maintain a normal daily routine
If you are a missing person
It is not an offence to be reported as ‘missing’. If you become aware or suspect that you have been reported missing because there are concerns about your safety and welfare, please contact either your family or local police station so they can suspend all searchers and stop looking for you.
If you are 17 years of age or over, your whereabouts cannot be disclosed without your consent. If this is what you choose, police will tell the person who reported you missing that you have been located, but will state that they do not have the authority to disclose your whereabouts. Police must take this step to ensure accurate closure of the missing person case. The ability of police to make disclosures about persons under 17 years of age will depend on the individual circumstances of the missing person and privacy legislation requirements within the State of Victoria.
Helping with the search
When a person is reported as missing, the focus is often centred around the investigation and the way in which the police and the community are working together to locate the missing person. Once the Missing Persons Report has been taken, family members and friends may feel isolated, frustrated and helpless that they are not doing enough to help further.
Often, families and friends of missing people say they gain a sense of control, direction and purpose by 'keeping busy'. The following suggestions are useful if you wish to be more actively involved in the search process. It is strongly recommended that you consult with police before undertaking any of the activities and keep them informed of your progress.
Raise awareness about a missing person
- raise awareness by printing recent photographs of the missing person for distribution to the media for either local, state and/or national publicity
- create posters that can be displayed in and around the community, with a clear heading eg. ‘Missing Person’ or ‘Have you seen me?’
- include a clear and recent photograph of the missing person within the posters
- details of where the person was last sighted (area)
- a contact telephone number for the public to provide information. The most appropriate telephone number to display is the Crime Stoppers number, not a personal or private number
- distribute posters and recent photographs in public areas such as shopping centres, bus stops, railway stations, sporting and entertainment facilities, libraries, police stations, churches and community centres. Keep a list of where posters and photographs have been displayed
Share information about a missing person
- any information you have relating to the missing person should be given to the police investigating officer
- consult with police about making a public appeal through the media
- any information or specific details of any enquiries must be recorded
What you can do on behalf of a missing person
When a police investigation is being carried out, there are several things you could do on behalf of the missing person:
- notify the missing person's employer, business, school or education facility
- cancel any prearranged social engagements, business appointments or travel plans
- ensure someone is looking after the missing person's house and pets and arrange for the mail to be collected if they live alone
- make interim arrangements for outstanding bills, mortgage, rent, insurance or other financial obligations
- if you notice any unusual activity in the missing person's bank accounts, notify police
Your own arrangements
Although the primary focus will be directed towards the police investigation and search, your own personal matters need to be taken care of to enable some direction during this difficult time.
- advise your employer and discuss the possibility of taking some time off work
- when you have investigation and search commitments, arrange for close friends or relatives to take the children to and from school and take care of chores and meals
- inform neighbours of the situation and alert them to the fact police and media will be present in the area
- families of missing persons are often contacted by psychics and clairvoyants who may be genuinely trying to help. Do not feel obliged to deal with them. It may be more appropriate to refer them to the police investigating officer to manage these type of requests
Reviewed 01 August 2022