Search-and-rescue research project educates first responders on dementia wellness checks

By Isabel Buckmaster

As Canada’s dementia population increases, one University of Waterloo researcher is working with first responders to film an educational series of videos on how to keep those living with dementia safe. 

Announced in early summer of 2022, these videos are part of a three-year, $2.1 million search-and-rescue-research project, led by Lili Liu, University of Waterloo Public Health researcher and the Dean of the Faculty of Health at UW.

“We can't put a number on (how many Canadians are living with dementia) anymore. Despite (what) the Alzheimer's Society's website says … we actually don't know where those numbers come from,” said Liu. “So the message we're trying to send out is as soon as an individual is diagnosed with a progressive cognitive impairment, then there is a risk they will go missing.” 

It's estimated that 60 per cent of people living with dementia will go missing at least once, with some getting lost repeatedly.

“(Search and rescue teams) have found people after a search wedged between large recycling containers, in hedges, in bodies of water, and yet when they were searching they just didn't think anybody would actually walk themselves in there,” said Liu. “So we’re trying to share safety tips with these short video clips so that people can become more familiar with the uniqueness of this population.” 

In one training video, Liu filmed a scene when a missing individual living with dementia is returned by two police officers. While the family caregiver is relieved, she says she didn't know what to do and that she felt terrible calling 911. 

Liu emphasized the importance of the officers in the video stressing that if the individual were to go missing again that same day, the caregiver should immediately call 911. 

“There’s a myth out there that when a person goes missing, people have in their mind that they have to wait 24 hours or 48 hours before they call 911,” said Liu. “We want to ensure that the viewers understand that they shouldn't feel guilty because despite what everyone does, what care partners try to do, a person living with dementia can still go missing.” 

Another aspect of the project will research how wellness checks play a role in preventing tragedy. Presently, there is no standard for systematic wellness checks in Canada, a term that often refers to situations when police officers check in on someone whose mental health or well-being is of concern. 

This is a particular issue when it comes to dementia because first responders are supposed to do a follow-up after a person with a cognitive impairment goes missing, called a return-home discussion. However, Liu’s research shows that this is not systematically done. 

“(Return home discussions) are not even a concept (in Canada),” said Liu. “It's not found in the literature and when and if it is done, it's not documented.” 

Despite this, Liu says that caregivers can take a multi-pronged approach when trying to stop loved ones with dementia from going missing. When caring for someone living with dementia, many people use preventative measures like attaching identification, tracking their routines, using vulnerable person registries, and notifying neighbours and other community members of their condition, to keep them safe. 

“I think it’s always extremely traumatic for any community when a person with dementia goes missing because we don't want to see these things happen but it's becoming more and more common,” said Liu. “Everyone is impacted by aging and the diseases associated with aging such as dementia. And so in that way, I think it impacts all of us.”

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