What should be done if a stranger seems to be exhibiting dementia symptoms and is alone?

Rvarney asked...

I recently was at a small local business when a woman drove into the parking lot. I spoke with her - my mother suffered from dementia - and the woman exhibited similar confusion. She was trying to find her sister, but didn't remember her name or address. I felt the business should have called the local police in case she was a missing person; however, they hesitated to do so as she did "nothing wrong". She proceeded to drive away, still confused. What could I have done, or what could the business have done?

Expert Answer

Lisa P. Gwyther, a social worker specializing in Alzheimer's services, is the author of The Alzheimer's Action Plan. An associate professor in the Duke University Medical Center Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, she's also a past president of the Gerontological Society of America.

Helping strangers who show signs of dementia may be the mark of a dementia-friendly community. Our communities must become more responsive to citizens with a range of disabilities if we are to age in place without stigma associated with cognitive or physical disabilities.

I bet she looked scared or anxious, and if you immediately told someone to call the police, you might scare her into driving off and becoming even more lost.  Perhaps you could say, "I will help you find your sister, but can you tell me some more about her?"  Engage her in conversation, check discretely for a Medic Alert or Safe Return bracelet, and perhaps you could gradually gain her trust and calm her down with conversational reassurance.  Then you could suggest that you don't know the local area real well, but perhaps the police could help you two together find her sister or someone who knows her sister.  You might also suggest that she look in her purse or car to make sure she doesn't have her sister or someone's name and address with her.  You must go slow to avoid raising her suspicion. The bottom line - - it would probably help her and her concerned family, if she has a family, to know that you will help her find her way or find answers to her questions before she gets more lost, scared or further from home.  Many families report that they only noticed a memory problem when someone was lost or searching for someone from the past.  Most concerned families would appreciate the "kindness of strangers" in helping their relatives find their way safely.