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Call for routine assessment to identify risk of dementia-related wandering


More than three-quarters of people with dementia who went missing in Australia over a five-year period were last seen at their home or residential aged care facility, a Queensland University of Technology study has found.

The Dementia Centre for Research Collaboration: Carers and Consumers study investigated Australian news reports between 2011 and 2015 and found 130 cases of a person with dementia going missing with outcomes reported for 92 of these.

Just under half of these 92 people went missing from their home in the community (43) and more than a quarter went missing from their residential aged care facility (26), the study published this week in the Australasian Journal on Ageing found.

Other areas the person with dementia was last reported being seen included hospitals (7), holiday places (3), visiting places (3) and shops (1) with the location not stated in nine cases.

Most of the 92 individuals were men (66), the average age was 75, and most people were found well (55), however 18 individuals were found injured and 19 deceased.

Men had a higher rate of being found deceased (23 per cent) than women (15 per cent), however a higher proportion of women were found alive but injured or unwell (38 per cent) than men (12 per cent), the report found.

Margie McAndrew

Lead researcher Dr Margie MacAndrew said while there are health benefits of wandering such as exercise and social interaction, it can be risky when it went beyond safe limits.

“The findings suggest that people living independently in the community, along with those in aged care facilities may need to undergo routine assessment to identify risk of wandering and the negative outcomes associated with it,” Dr MacAndrew said.

“Characteristics of risky wandering include frequent and repetitive walking without resting, which can be very tiring. Also walking without knowing where you are and how to get back home without help from another person,” she said.

“Wandering can result in potentially life-threatening outcomes such as malnutrition, increased risk of falls, injury, exhaustion, hypothermia, becoming lost and death,” Dr MacAndrew said.

Low supervision, being able to walk independently, time spent walking and the area of the brain impacted by dementia can contribute to navigation problems and becoming lost while wandering, the report said.

The researchers also recommend looking at introducing something similar to the ‘Silver Alert’ system used in 18 US states, which sees media outlets, law enforcement and departments of transport involved to spread the message when a person with dementia is reported missing lost.

“We also recommend current approaches to coordinating a search and rescue attempt should include, careful searching in the immediate vicinity the person was last seen, particularly outbuildings and garden areas, should be given priority,” Dr MacAndrew said.

“Rapid reporting within one hour of knowing a person is missing is also known to help search and rescue have a better chance of finding a person alive and well,”

Access the full study here.

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4 Responses to Call for routine assessment to identify risk of dementia-related wandering

  1. Jason B May 25, 2018 at 12:03 pm #

    Can we drop the labelling? “wandering” implies that the person does not know where or why they are walking. More often than not the person living with dementia has a purpose for their walking that is quite legitimate. Maybe we can reframe this as safe walking and rather than fall into our usual “management” mentality we support it through risk reduction interventions that still allow the person the basic human right to take a walk?

  2. K. M May 30, 2018 at 12:45 pm #

    Agree totally with Jason B. We still have a tendency to label and manage the person living

    with dementia. Kate Swaffer’s 2015 poem “Wandering” covers this far better than I can.

    I also know that most people who report this person as missing, myself included, have

    already done a thorough search of the area before they raise the alarm.

    Were people actually involved in this area of support, search and rescue, and those living

    with dementia, approached before the conclusions/suggestions were reached?

  3. Country carer May 31, 2018 at 5:15 pm #

    Is this where much needed funding for our elderly is going instead of providing actual care? Too many studies by academics who have never experienced dementia at close range.Too many “findings” that could be deduced with common sense. I will never understand the prevalence of funding such inane studies. Ask the people who are caring for their family member with dementia. But then we don’t need to be told how to suck eggs, thanks!

  4. LB McIntyre June 1, 2018 at 2:01 pm #

    The study highlights the an important issue but for those people who either provide care for a person with dementia in the community or in a facility they are probably also very aware of the very simple and accessible systems available to provide an additional level of support and ensure rapid response if the person does not return.

    These are the very successful SAFELY HOME program that is run by Dementia Australia and supported by the various Police agencies across Australia. And the high tech wearable GPS pendants for people in the community. Or the other very simple process of activating “FIND MY I-PHONE” app in all APPLE products.

    In facilities there are very specific protocols for the identification and subsequent action if a person is noted to be “missing.” And quite a considerable amount of education for teams around this area.

    The real issue here that needs to be addressed is working within communities to increase the awareness that a person may be “lost” and how to assist and creating dementia friendly communities so that people with dementia can be supported to continue to enjoy “walking”.

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