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

5 answers | Last updated: Nov 12, 2016
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 Answers

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.

Community Answers

Kilmatead answered...

IT was my best friend who was spot on saying my mum may be suffering from alzheimers.Her late father was a suffererand she recognised the symptons .At first i put it to the back of my mind but litlle things niggled .It was not until we had my mum properly diagnosed that the whole jig saw puzzle finally fitted ------relief and sadness that day

Lrdarrah answered...

I had a elderly woman come up to me and ask the day. I told her it was Wednesday. She said she thought it was Saturday and wondered why all the cars were on main street. She seemed confused and a bit lost - she was looking around and then just walked away. I watched her for a bit and she went into a main street business.

I did nothing else but worried about her for days. What could I have done differently. I suppose engaging her in more conversation would have given me more clues to her mental state.

This is a small town and I have seen this woman many times - however, I do not know anything about her. Having a mother with Alzheimer's I wondered if I was just "jumping the gun" on my thoughts about her confusion. I have not known the day before - That is an easy thing to lose track of, especially during retirement (no work to keep you on track).

Frena answered...

i would suggest Adult Protective Services. i know everyone feels bad about this, BUT i've found them to be really helpful. you can do it anonymously and they will come and investigate and set a care system up for someone who is lost and confused. and it's worth it, because the terror that people feel in the onset of dementia is horrendous. plus, they probably don't eat well and may not be paying bills that keep electric and phone available to them. Every state in the US has this social work agency. they will contact family, they will set up care in someone home's or, if absolutely necessary, they will move someone into assisted living. and the are NOT the old people police -- they won't punish and lockup, honestly. i don't work for them but i've seen them at work and it's mainly good or very good. at worst, necessary.

The caregiver's voice answered...

When my father wandered out of the nursing home in Los Angeles County one evening and was found in Kern County several hours later walking along the freeway in the Mojave desert trying to go home to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, someone pulled over and then called the police. Without that Good Samaritan my father would have been gone from our lives only 12 hours after we placed him in the nursing home.

The reality is that we're all so busy rushing around we are not sure if we can stop to even help someone. Furthermore, in our litigious society we fear if there was an outburst by a demented person, we might be put in a risky situation.

But for those of us who have been in this position,

we must take the time to stop then engage the person in conversation, to help this human being--this loved one of a frightened family... to return home safely.

Whether it is calling the police, sheriff's station, 911; any help we can provide will likely save a life--this time. If you're a caregiver, you'll easily recognize the symptoms and step in to help. If you're not, imagine if this were your parent, your spouse, your sibling, or your child.