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Missing Person Cases Involving Dementia Challenge Police

Memory loss is one of the symptoms of dementia. So is wandering. Over the last five years, at least 10 people in Washington state have died after wandering away from where they live. It’s a problem that communities will have to confront as the population ages. But not all police departments are prepared for these kinds of incidents.

There are different challenges when searching for people with dementia than for other missing person cases. Certain kinds of information play a key role, too. For example, when an elderly person is reported missing medical information is critical; it can mean the difference between life and death.

The Case Of William Landers

On January 28 just before 9:00 p.m., a neighbor reported William Landers missing. He was 69 years old. He lived at Harbor House, a public housing program in Anacortes for seniors.

Anacortes Police Chief Bonnie Bowers showed me the neighborhood where he lived. It’s not far from the marina. From what the police gleaned, Landers had a routine.

“He liked to go to Dakota Creek and watch them work on the big boats; it’s a boat-building place. He liked the marina,” said Bowers. “He went to Safeway which is a couple of blocks away. And he would go downtown to the local establishments every once in a while.”

Usually when an adult is reported missing, police look for foul play. In Landers’ case, there was no evidence of that. So the police waited to see if he would come home on his own.

On day two, the card they’d stuck on his door was still there. An officer went back to Landers’ apartment to look for more clues. “He did things like look at medications,” said Bowers. “That’s how he found out who Mr. Landers’ doctor was, and that’s how he obtained the information about the caregiver and diagnosis of Alzheimer’s dementia. Until that we didn’t know that information.”

Landers lived alone. He had a caregiver who came in twice a week to help him. When the police learned he had dementia, the approach to their investigation changed. They no longer considered him just missing, but endangered. This time, the police were running against the clock: the first six hours are critical for endangered people. Once they’re out overnight, Bowers said, the chances of them having issues of exposure multiplies.

The Anacortes police put out an alert through the state’s computer system, through the press, and through social media.

The way police conducted their search changed, too. The mindset and the behavior of a dementia patient are different compared with other missing persons. “Alzheimer’s patients can wander up to 10 miles and don’t stop for rest breaks, bathroom breaks, hydration," said Bowers. "They’ll just keep going.”

It’s not clear why they wander. Often they start on a routine task, but at some point they become disoriented and they’re not able to recognize familiar surroundings. Bowers said it’s as if they’re on a mission, and they will keep going until they’re satisfied. Sometimes they’ll go to ground, or hide in areas with thick vegetation or near bodies of water, much like children might do. Often they veer in the direction of their dominant hand.

Day three after Landers was reported missing, the investigation expanded. Thirty volunteers combed through the area. They searched the docks, checked behind boats, and aimed their lights on the water. It was raining, and cold.

Day four, Skagit County Search and Rescue became involved. They brought a cadaver dog. There’s a wooded area about three blocks from Landers’ home. Searchers found him here. Part of the year, the ground is dry and covered with tall grass. But in January, it was full of water. Landers had drowned.

Bowers pointed to a fence that borders the marsh. “I learned from one of the search and rescue deputies in Skagit County who’s had extensive training in looking for Alzheimer’s dementia patients that they follow straight lines,” she said. “So he looked at this fence and he said well, it makes perfect sense to me that if he came to a fence line, he would follow the fence line.”

Developing A Safety Net

Nationwide, there are more than 5 million Americans diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or some form of dementia. It’s estimated that 70 percent of them will wander and become lost. As the aging population grows, law enforcement will be dealing more with these types of cases.

Four years ago, the Anacortes Police went through special training to prepare for this kind of search. The city has a higher-than-normal elderly population. Bowers said it helps officers to have an understanding of the disease. “It has forced us to really take a look at traditionally what we would normally do with a missing person case on an older adult, and ask questions that we would not have before.”

The Landers case highlights how important it is to have the medical information early on. Bowers said that had police known about Landers’ dementia, the department would have deployed more resources sooner.

In 2005, the police teamed up with the local hospital guild to promote Project Lifesaver. The program uses an electronic bracelet to help police find people with memory loss or with developmental disabilities.

The community also relies on volunteers like Michael Newbrough, who come in contact with seniors living alone. Newbrough is a retired professor. Every Tuesday just before lunchtime he delivers food to seniors who’ve signed up for Meals on Wheels.

Newbrough has been delivering meals for nine years. He’s gotten to know most of the clients. In a way, drivers like Newbrough are the eyes and ears of the community. They’re usually the first to spot the early signs of medical decline. Newbrough said there are telltale signs like general disarray and lack of cleanliness.

“If there’s been a change, that’s the first thing you’ll notice,” he said. “People just let things go; they don’t care anymore. And if they don’t know who you are, or why you’re there, that’s a big giveaway.” When that happens, Newbrough alerts the staff at the senior center so someone can come out and get them the help that’s needed.

Together we stopped at the home of Nadeen Goodrich. Goodrich is 86 years old and has dementia. She lived alone until it was no longer safe. Her son Steven and daughter-in-law Luann moved in to care for her. “We didn’t want to take away her independence,” said Luann Goodrich. "It’s a fine line of how much help do you need.”

A Community Issue

It’s a quandary that many families with aging parents will be facing. It’s also a question that Bowers knows all too well. Her mother suffered from Alzheimer’s before she passed away. Bowers said families can set up some safeguards, especially for those in the early stages of the disease: a daily phone call to check in, letting neighbors know there are health concerns, and making sure law enforcement has that information, too. She said the Landers case is a reminder that dementia is not just a medical issue that’s confined to families and their doctors. It’s a community issue, too.

“I think back to when my kids were little, we had those things on the windows of our homes that said ‘Child in This Room’ for firefighters,” said Bowers. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we had that kind of information about someone who’s living independently in an apartment — that we know this was an Alzheimer’s/dementia patient?”

"Wandering," by KCTS 9

"Wandering" is a collaboration between KCTS 9, InvestigateWest and KUOW to explore the high incidence of people with Alzheimer's and dementia going missing.

We examined several high-profile cases and hear directly from dozens of family members, health care professionals, search and rescue volunteers and law enforcement officers to answer the question, how do we keep people with Alzheimer's or dementia from wandering; and how do we build systems that bring them home safely when they do?

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