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Dementia and wandering in Richmond

Lorraine Graves   Jun-29-2018

As the Richmond community continues to age, the frequency of wandering by those suffering from dementia figures to only increase.

Photo by Chung Chow

Suddenly, you realize that your granddad, sibling or elderly mom is missing. They have dementia. What do you do?

Wandering is a worry and a danger for those living with dementia and the people who care for them.



People discover the issue of wandering, a lost elder, in one of two ways. A family member who has trouble remembering, reasoning or route-finding, heads off for a walk and doesn’t come back.

The other way is encountering someone who is confused, who may be upset because they can’t understand where they are or where they should be.

“Dementia is one of those things that is so hidden. You may not know that someone will wander off until they wander off,” says Debbie Hertha, seniors coordinator of community social development for the City of Richmond.

Hertha says everyone in our community has a role to play in keeping our elders safe.

Hertha warns that sometimes the confused state comes as a surprise. It can be short-term, called a delirium, as a result of an illness like a bladder infection or a reaction to a medication. In any case, route-finding has become a problem.

According to RCMP Cpl. Dennis Hwang, Richmond RCMP were called 68 times last year to find a lost person with dementia. That’s more than once each week. And that is by no means the total of all the people with confusion who get lost.

The Alzheimer Society of BC says 60 percent of those with dementia wander at some point in their disease.

Step one, if a family member has wandered away or you come across someone who seems disoriented, who seems to be wandering, is to call for help.

Barbara Lindsay, director of advocacy and marketing at Alzheimer Society of British Columbia says, “Call 911. It is an emergency.“

Step two is to find a recent photo so those looking know who to hunt for. If you have found a wandering person, try to quietly take a photo to send to the police.

Step three is to try to describe what the person is or was wearing.

If you have found someone you think to be wandering and they won’t come into your home or a safe public place, walk beside them, casually engaging them in conversation, in the hope they will reveal other identifying information.

But Hertha said people can prepare for such a scenario. One suggestion is having a recent photo ready.

Lindsay suggests a medic alert bracelet and signing up for the wandering registry. The Alzheimer Society of Canada’s website offers many resources and suggestions.

If someone needs to be locked in to keep them from wandering, Lindsay says, then you shouldn’t be leaving them home alone.

To reduce the chances of wandering, she suggests not leaving coats or keys sitting out. If they are put away, sometimes a person with dementia will not get the idea of going out.

Also, says Lindsay, keep a log. If you see the person you care for wanting to go out at a specific time of the day, try to figure out why. Sometimes, it is to meet an old friend for coffee at their regular time and spot, even though the friend may not be around anymore.

Lindsay suggests keeping a person with dementia active to add enough fatigue that wandering away isn’t on their mind.

If you find someone who may be lost, Hertha encourages Richmondites to do the neighbourly thing; to talk to the person, calmly without peppering them with questions. Abilities flee when flustered, just like trying to do something in a shaky second language, so calm is the order of the day.

Just saying, hello, introducing yourself and asking something low-key like, “Where are you headed?” can get a calm conversation started.

If the person is in physical distress, you can also call an ambulance to check them out.

Hertha says, “My stance on this is it’s about educating the public about how to perhaps identify somebody with dementia and right now it’s really getting back to what we need to do as a city. We need to educate people about what dementia is, the characteristics to identify people who do have it and how can we support them in the city to remain living independently on their own and if they do need supports, hook them up with those supports.”

Hertha tells of a restaurant in another community where the managers train the workers to recognize someone with cognitive impairment who might be lost, to keep them calm by staying calm themselves, and to welcome the person with dementia in, offering a cup of tea or coffee while calling 911. She says it is program she would love to see expanded in Richmond amongst businesses and public buildings alike.

Hertha talks of, “The sense of neighbourhood that’s been lost and how that plays into someone who is wandering. Unfortunately, it’s not like it used to be when a neighbour would recognize you and bring you back.”

In her job with the City of Richmond, Hertha is working to do just that. With the Dementia-Friendly Community Action Plan she is developing with the city’s strong support and citizen input, the hope is that our city will be more attuned to the needs of those with cognitive impairment, better able to recognize them and ultimately, better able to help.

“When we are familiar with seniors it’s an easier process because we know what to do,” Hertha says.

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