Don't Search Alone

It is not unusual for the families of missing dementia patients to search on their own for a few hours before calling police.

Sgt. Robert Sandford wishes they wouldn’t delay. Sandford is the head search co-ordinator with the Toronto police emergency management unit, a tall cop with a grey moustache and a serious stare. On a warm fall day he sits in the back of a police RV, which acts as a mobile command centre during search-and-rescue operations but is idle for the moment.

Sanford says police take calls about missing dementia patients as seriously as they would a call about a missing child. “They can’t defend themselves. They don’t have the ability anymore, so we want to help them as quickly as possible.”

Time is the most important predictor of success. Research suggests that if the wanderer is not found within 24 hours, there is a 50 per cent chance of serious injury or death. Police need to move fast.

In the city, common hazards include train stations, cliffs, rivers, ponds, ravines, wooded areas.

“The first thing we do is eliminate the dangers as quickly as possible,” Sandford says. In the city, common hazards include train stations, cliffs, rivers, ponds, ravines, wooded areas. Search managers send cops on foot, bicycle or horse to stand watch near any red-flag zones.

The next step is to conduct a 300-metre search of the area where the missing person was last seen, including 300 metres up and down when the property has multiple levels. If an initial search is unsuccessful, the investigative work begins.

The questions and strategies used in missing person investigations across North America and Europe are informed by the work of Robert J. Koester, an American search-and-rescue expert and author of the book Lost Person Behavior.

Koester’s lost-person questionnaire for dementia wanderers poses nearly 60 questions to family members about the missing person’s past, including where they lived at every stage of life since childhood — even if the places no longer exist — as well as the jobs they held at each location, their favourite places and people they may remember from long ago.

“What a lot of these questions have to do with is sort of attempting to place the person where their current reality is in time,” Koester says over the phone from his home office in Charlottesville, Va. “Is it just a really mild dementia and they’re forgetting more recent friends? Or at this point is their reality that they are a 12-year-old girl?

“It’s the ultimate detective game.”

After analyzing data from 2,200 wandering cases over the years, Koester has learned that most dementia-driven wanderers in cities are found within 3.2 kilometres from home or the location they disappeared from. They tend to move in a straight line, which means the direction they departed in is a good predictor of where they will be found.

He has learned that in a lot of cases, wanderers appear to have tunnel vision and lack the ability to turn around. If they meet a barrier they may “ping-pong” off it, continuing in whichever direction they bounced. They tend to keep moving until they get stuck, often ending up in places their families would not have expected them to go — deep in the woods, for example.

Among Koester’s more troubling findings: 1 per cent will respond to rescuers calling out their name.

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