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 40s can 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 111 immediately to report the person missing.
  • You will also need to file a report at a police station.

Visit your nearest police station.
See more about How to report a person missing.

  • Make sure someone is available to speak to Police when they arrive.
  • Be prepared to answer questions from Police and search teams, 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. 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.

Severities of dementia

Police search strategies are based around two categories – mild and severe.

Mild dementia

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
  • use vehicles.

Severe dementia

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.

For more information about dementia visit the Alzheimers New Zealand website.

Tracking devices for wanderers

Tracking devices are issued by Police Search and Rescue (Police SAR) and by New Zealand Land Search & Rescue (LandSAR). They are for 'wanderers' who regularly go missing, such as some people with dementia.

The tracking devices are small pendants in the form of a necklace, belt attachment or watch, worn by the wandering person. Each pendant has its own individual frequency which can be tracked using direction finding equipment.

After they receive the tracking device, a person's details are entered into the Police National Intelligence application with an alert attached. When a person wearing the device goes missing, Police SAR will be notified immediately and the person tracked using the device. This has proved successful for both Police and families.

For more information contact any Police SAR coordinator through your nearest police station.