TAMPA — When an Alzheimer’s patient disappeared last November in Jacksonville during his daily bicycle ride, sheriff’s deputies initially approached the search like any other missing persons case.
Helicopters with infrared sensors and bloodhounds combed the nearby woods. Descriptions were sent to other law enforcement agencies, yielding numerous tips from up to 60 miles away. Two days passed with no results.
An unexpected call from a university professor prompted deputies to change their strategy.
Meredith Rowe had just completed a study at the University of Florida of 93 cases in which people with dementia wandered off and were found dead. She suggested that deputies gather as many volunteers as he could, narrow the search field to a mile radius and focus on unpopulated areas such as fields, woods, ditches, brush and ravines.
Heeding Rowe’s advice, sheriff’s Sgt. Michael Eason and a friend of the missing man’s family organized a search party of 150 to scour every inch of the tightened area. Just over an hour later — after eight days with no results — a team found the elderly man lying in leaves next to his bike, about a quarter-mile from his apartment. He was dehydrated, but alive.
Rowe’s study, published in the November/December issue of the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias, is a review of newspaper reports from across the country. Though not a comprehensive scientific study, the cases shared so many similarities that it was easy for Rowe to develop some conclusions.
Her recommendations include:
— Law enforcement officers should conduct an initial high-intensity search, rather than increasing efforts each day until the patient is found.
— If the initial search is unsuccessful, officers should conduct another search within the mile radius before expanding the area.
— If a dementia patient is lost while driving a car, the focus should be on an area within one mile of where the car was abandoned — even if it is 200 miles away.
When trying to find missing dementia patients, avoid logical deductions such as where a person might be going, said Rowe, an associate professor of nursing. “They have no mind-set. If they had a mind-set, they wouldn’t be lost.”
Rowe said she just fell into the case study. Her primary research area involves developing a monitoring device that alerts home caregivers to a patient’s unsafe nighttime activity.
Her work is prompting other missing persons detectives to take notice, and dementia advocates are working to help spread the word.
Natalie Kelly, public policy chairwoman for the Florida Alzheimer’s Association, said the group is helping Rowe get the information in newsletters and instructional materials.
“What we’re trying to do is work with law enforcement to get it a part of their training,” Kelly said. “The immediate response is crucial. Not only will it save a life, it will save time, manpower and money.”