‘Safe Return’

The Alzheimer’s Association offers a brochure for law enforcement, “Safe Return”. 

While it is good for police and first responders, it also holds excellent information for everyone who cares for a loved one with dementia or actually for anyone, as you might meet someone on the street or in a restaurant who appears confused and could benefit from your friendly, positive reassurance and assistance.

As a progressive brain disorder, Alzheimer’s disease slowly destroys memory, the ability to learn, reason, and make good choices. The individual may also have trouble communicating as words vanish from the mind or the inability to complete daily tasks emerges. Even when these tasks are familiar such as walking to the mailbox or driving to the grocery story, cognition diminishes as increasing dementia arises.

Many people with Alzheimer’s disease wander. I really think of it as wonder, as people no longer recognize the well-known – from faces to places – and the world becomes a mystery. 

There may be a fragment of dignity that hangs onto the embarrassment of being lost and so someone may assure you, “Oh! I’m fine. No need to worry.” 

Further questions may lead you to the truth. I always check the eyes for disorientation or excess worry. Is the individual near tears or does s/he appear frazzled and frustrated? 

If this is someone you know, a smile and touch of kindness may calm the person and alleviate some stress. Always approach from the front, never from behind, with a gentle greeting. Speak softly so as not to frighten the person as you ask questions. If you are comfortable, offer a ride or guide the person to a safe destination. 

Check for an identification bracelet or pendant for a phone number. While having an imprinted address seems helpful, it also sends the unscrupulous to what may be an empty home, ripe for criminal activity. 

No one wants to report a friend or neighbor with dementia or who appears to make erratic decisions or who is scary on the road. However, reporting your fears may save injury and even life. 

Often family members are aware of daily challenges but they are fearful to share this with a loved one. Imagine how hard it is to tell Grandpa he can no longer take his daily strolls unless accompanied or hiding the keys so Mom cannot escape into the wilds of the road.

These are tough choices to make but are absolutely vital to public safety. Law enforcement may intervene, hopefully in a kind manner to avoid anger, angst, and fights about driving. 

After all, taking away freedom of movement invites social isolation and irritation (or rage).

Being on top of a dementia diagnosis also helps family avoid con artists and victimization. It pays to be vigilant even though it may be uncomfortable and add pressure to your already pressure-filled life. 

Unfortunately, dishonest behavior may come from a family member or friend. Often people call me to tell about disappearing money from checkbooks or the ATM. 

At other times they explain how a long, lost sister arrived on Pop’s doorstep suggesting help while pilfering valuables and cash with a quick explanation,

“Oh, Dad said I could take these.” This, naturally, adds more grief to a caregiver’s life while that person works to maintain family peace.

And what about guns and knives? Not only is suicide a possibility, unwarranted attacks may be provoked. 

Maybe Uncle Ben has always had a hefty gun display and he has carefully exercised caution, remember, his mind is not the same. 

Even if a firearm is empty someone breaking up a situation probably will not realize this and danger to all develops and easily explodes on the assumption that the gun is loaded.

Tips for assisting someone with dementia include saying your name and then maintaining eye contact and speaking slowly and in a mild manner. 

Ask simple yes or no questions to determine what help might be needed. Allow processing time on each question and remain attentive and patient. 

You may need to repeat a question. If speaking causes or intensifies confusion, try pointing, leading, or directing to get you both to a quiet, safe environment. Pushing exacerbates problems; forcing is worse. Patience is a virtue.

If the individual has no identification, when family arrives encourage contacting the Alzheimer’s Association at 1-800-272-3900 to register the person as a wanderer/wonderer and to purchase an ID bracelet or pendant. 

The sooner a loved one is located, the better the outcome for all.