Missing Elderly at Risk

An estimated 4.5 million Americans currently have Alzheimer's disease; that number has doubled since 1980. By 2050 the number of individuals with Alzheimer's disease could range from 11.3 million to 16 million.


It is a familiar high priority call. Unfortunately, law enforcement can expect an exponential increase in these calls. An estimated 4.5 million Americans currently have Alzheimer's disease; that number has doubled since 1980. By 2050 the number of individuals with Alzheimer's disease could range from 11.3 million to 16 million.

In the United States over 125,000 Alzheimer's disease subjects become critical wanderers annually. It estimated by 2040, this number will increase to over half a million wanderers per year.

Overview of Alzheimer's Disease

Alzheimer's is caused by the degeneration and shrinkage of the brain as well as a decrease in neurotransmitters (brain chemicals). These changes impair the function of the brain and eventually lead to cellular brain death. The brain, unlike other cells, in unable to regenerate new cells. Alzheimer's disease (AD) is progressive; it is commonly broken down into three phases: mild, moderate and severe dementia. The hallmark of Alzheimer's disease is memory impairment, typically beginning with problems in short-term memory, slowly progressing to long-term memory dysfunction. Other key features of Alzheimer's include loss of reasoning, decreased judgment abilities, behavioral changes, communications problems, and difficulty performing routine activities of daily living. Disorientation is another common feature of AD that relates to wandering and becoming lost. The three brain systems healthy adults use for orientation are all compromised in Alzheimer's disease: short and long term memory (to identify landmarks), a sense of time and speed (to judge distance), and an intact visual-spatial sense (to know direction and expected arrival times). The incidence of wandering in the severe dementia phase is 50%. The term "critical wanderer" is given to anyone with dementia who wanders away from supervised care or cannot be located.

Time is of the Essence

The consequences of wandering are staggering, including death and severe medical compromise. Finding the wanderer as soon as possible is paramount.

Survivability Rate:

missing less than 12 hours 100%
missing more than12 hours 80%
missing more than 24 hours 68%
missing more than 48 hours 60%
missing more than 72 hours 20%

Survivability rates are also related to weather conditions. The leading causes of death for wanderers are hypothermia, dehydration and drowning.

Profile of the Wanderer

DBS Publications' The Source of Search & Rescue Research, Publications, and Training offers the following behavioral profile of the critical wanderer (Note: not all wanderers have Alzheimer's disease):

  • "They go until they get stuck."
  • Appear to lack ability to turn around.
  • Subject oriented to the past, degree of the disease sends them back in time
  • Subject usually found in a creek, or drainage and/or caught in briars/bushes (63%)
  • Leaves own residence or nursing home, possibly with last sighting on a roadway
  • Coexisting medical problems that limit mobility are common.
  • Has previous history of wandering (72%)
  • May cross or depart from roads (67%).
  • Usually (89%) found within one mile of IPP, half found within 0.5 miles.
  • Subject usually found a short distance from road (50% within 33 yards)
  • Subject may attempt to travel to former residence or favorite place.
  • Subject will not leave many verifiable clues.
  • Will not cry out for help (1%) or respond to shouts (only 1% response rate).
  • Succumbs to the environment (hypothermia, drowning, and dehydration).

Finding the Victim: Tips to Remember

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