On average, 20 older adults go missing in a month from Delhi. 11,369 people went missing from Mumbai in 2016, out of which maximum were senior citizens. Every other day on social media platform, we see pictures of seniors being shared who have gone missing. But why do so many seniors go missing?
Older adults go missing due to a variety of reasons such as:
- Personal choice
- Domestic crime
- Mental or physical disability
- Natural disasters
However, a majority of the elderly that go missing are those with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Those suffering from depression or having suicidal thoughts, and other intellectual or physical disability are also likely to wander.
What is Dementia?
Dementia is a group of diseases that causes a progressive decline in a person’s mental functioning. Dementia occurs with age and a person having dementia slowly loses memory, deductive powers, social skills, rationality, and normal emotional reactions. They lose their basic navigational skills as well. They are likely to get disoriented while performing a regular activity and are unable to determine what they should do or where they should go.
According to a study by the researchers at the German Center for Neurodegenerative Disease (DZNE), there is instability in the area of the brains of older adults which processes spatial information. This unstable behaviour leads to disorientation. This instability is a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease.
The human brain has to process the information it receives from the eyes and other senses, and the muscles to form conclusions about where we are at any point in time. Spatial orientation and navigation are the most complex functions of the human brain.
However, with advancing age, these skills deteriorate and this, in turn, severely compromises the independence and quality of life of older adults.
What are the warning signs?
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, around 60% of the older adults with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease are likely to wander. Anyone who has memory problems and can walk is at risk of wandering. Even in the early stages of dementia, a person can be disoriented for a short period of time. Unfortunately, dementia is progressive and cannot be cured. However, some treatments and activities can slow down the progress of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Depression or other mental illnesses can cause an older adult to take the decision of leaving home because they feel they are a burden to their family. Many times, caretakers tend to mistake depression for sadness and try to keep the seniors active. However, depression and other mental diseases need proper treatment.
Caretakers should look out for some warning signs:
- Returning home later than usual when out on walks or drives
- Cannot remember how to reach familiar places
- Sudden flashbacks like wanting to go back to work
- Tries to “go home” even when at home
- Makes repetitive movements
- Has difficulty navigating or locating places at home like a bathroom or bedroom
- Talks about suicide or excessive, irrational sadness
- Extreme anxiety or sudden mood swings
How can we prevent older adults from going missing?
Even if you are the most diligent caregiver, mistakes can happen. Using the following tips to lower the chances of mishaps:
- Set a routine: Having a routine helps the elderly structure their lives. Creating a daily plan can help seniors with scheduling their activities and will also help you know if they are behaving any differently. Before setting a routine, consider the person’s likes and dislikes, the person’s original routine, and the best functioning times. An older adult with dementia often has sleep issues and sundowning (restlessness after sunset). Schedule regular times for waking up and sleeping for such people.
- Identify the times wandering is likely to occur: Change the activities and plan different activities at that time. Such activities can reduce anxiety, agitation, and restlessness. Include activities that the older adults will enjoy so that time passes pleasurably for them.
- Be reassuring: When an older adult gets confused about his surroundings, try to be reassuring instead of contradicting them. Using positive communication can help older adults with dementia relax better.
- Meet their basic needs: Keep a regular check to see if they are thirsty, hungry or want to visit the bathroom.
- Avoid busy places: Too many sights and sounds can cause an older adult with dementia to become disoriented. Avoid taking them to places like malls, supermarkets, and grocery stores.
- Place locks out of the line of sight: Move locks and bolts higher or lower on doors so that it takes some time for older adults to undo them.
- Use alarms: You can use electronic alarms or simple bells to indicate when a door is opened.
- Supervise constantly: Never leave an older adult with dementia or other mental illnesses alone. Do not lock them at home or in a vehicle and go out, even if it is only a trip to the nearby store.
What to do when an older adult goes missing?
Though it is very stressful for a caretaker to discover that their older adult is missing, there are some things you need to do with a clear head:
- Begin searching immediately: 94% of the people wandering are found within a 2km radius.
- Alert watchmen, neighbours, shopkeepers, pedestrians, and hawkers.
- Share the older adult’s recent photograph.
- Know the senior’s dominant hand; they tend to walk in that direction.
- List the possible places the older adult may visit. This includes previous workplaces, former homes, places of worship or someplace that you visit often, or a restaurant.
- Keep the medical reports handy and file a missing person’s report.
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