Finding Dementia Sufferers Who Get Lost While Driving

May 15, 2013

Various methods may help boost success in finding drivers with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia who get lost, a new study suggests. They include prompt notification of law enforcement officers, detailed descriptions of the missing person and not just their car, and preventive measures to keep people with dementia from getting lost in the first place.

It is common for someone with Alzheimer’s to become lost while driving. Quickly finding the missing person is critical, since it is estimated that half of those who are not found in the first 24 hours will suffer serious injury or death.

In recent years, Silver Alert programs have been adopted by many states to locate missing seniors. The programs, modeled on the Amber Alert system to find lost or abducted children, involve alerts sent out to local law enforcement and media outlets that provide a detailed description of the missing person as well as the kind of car they may be driving and the license plate number. Billboards on highways and TV and radio spots alert the public to those details.

Silver Alerts help local law enforcement find elders with Alzheimer’s or other cognitive impairment and return them home safely. For families and caregivers of loved ones assisted by the Silver Alert, it also increases awareness of the possibility of future problems or the need for additional assistance.

For the study, that was published online in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, researchers analyzed 156 records from the Florida Silver Alert program from October 2008 through May 2010. They looked at how people with dementia become lost while driving, how missing drivers are found, and the role of public notification systems like Silver Alert in these discoveries.

The researchers found that most missing drivers were men, ages 58 to 94, who were cared for by a spouse. Most got lost on routine, caregiver-sanctioned trips to usual locations. Only 15 percent were found while driving, with most discovered in or near a parked car. Law enforcement officers recovered the large majority of drivers with dementia.

In addition, only 40 percent were found in the county where they were reported missing and 10 percent were found in a different state. Another 15 percent were found in dangerous situations, such as stopped on railroad tracks. Five percent of those who got lost died, with those living alone more likely to be found dead than alive.

The researchers concluded that rapid and direct notification of law enforcement agencies was critical in a successful lost person response. They also noted that it is important that officers be trained to quickly assess whether a driver might have Alzheimer’s or other cognitive problems. In addition, a detailed physical description of the missing person, and not just the car, was critical for finding lost pedestrians, since many drive will leave their cars.

The only way to prevent these lost driving incidents is to get someone with dementia to give up the car keys, which is not always easy to do. But since dementia disrupts the ability to remain oriented and to drive safely, retirement from driving may be critical for safety.

“While some persons with dementia may continue to drive safely, it is imperative that we identify individuals who will get lost and establish policies that will improve location of those individuals who get lost,” said Dr. James E. Galvin, Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at New York University Langone Medical Center and a study co-author.

“Strategies commonly recommended, such as hiding the car keys, are potentially protective only in a small number of cases,” said study leader Meredeth A. Rowe, a professor at the University of South Florida College of Nursing. “It will be critical to identify other means of transportation for people with dementia to facilitate driving retirement. This strategy will be the most effective intervention to reduce and prevent incidents of missing persons with dementia.”

“Important aspects of successful driving retirement include a partnership between the healthcare practitioner and caregiver to support the decision for driving retirement, the identification of local and state programs, and assistance in finding alternative forms of transportation in the community,” the researchers concluded.

By www.ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by William J. Netzer, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.

Source: Meredeth A. Rowe, Catherine A. Greenblum, Marie Boltz and James E. Galvin: “Missing Drivers with Dementia: Antecedents and Recovery.” Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, Volume 60, Issue 11, Nov. 2012.


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