“MISSING,” the sign reads. “Distinguished-looking elderly man. 6′ 1” slightly stooped. Gray hair. Wearing dark blue sweater and gray slacks. Name: George; does not always respond. Suffering from mild dementia. Wandered away from the Laurel Village shopping center area. Please call 415-xxx-xxxx with any information.”
The sad, 8″ x 10″ flyer has appeared (once the words were slightly different, but it was clearly the same George) at the bus stop near my home twice in recent months. I kept the number in my wallet for a while, hoping I might spot him because I walk the city myself. But the difference is that I have on a warm jacket — it’s way too cold in San Francisco, especially after dark, for only a sweater — and I know how to get home. I have wanted to call the number and learn whether George got home, but it seems intrusive.
Last year for the first time, as reporter Kirk Johnson writes in The New York Times, people like George and a 60-year-old Virginia woman named Freda Machett accounted for more missing-person alerts than children and adolescents. They are confused and lost, and often are not found in time.
Ms. Machett, 60, suffers from a form of dementia that attacks the brain like Alzheimer’s disease and imposes on many of its victims a restless urge to head out the door. Their journeys, shrouded in a fog of confusion and fragmented memory, are often dangerous and not infrequently fatal. About 6 in 10 dementia victims will wander at least once, health care statistics show, and the numbers are growing worldwide, fueled primarily by Alzheimer’s disease, which has no cure and affects about half of all people over 85.
It started with five words — ‘I want to go home’ — even though this is her home,” said Ms. Machett’s husband, John, a retired engineer who now cares for his wife full time near Richmond. She has gone off dozens of times in the four years since receiving her diagnosis, three times requiring a police search. “It’s a cruel disease,” he said.
“You have to stop thinking logically, because the people you’re looking for are no longer capable of logic,” said Robert B. Schaefer, a retired F.B.I. agent who cared for his wife, Sarah, for 15 years at home through her journey into Alzheimer’s. He now leads two-day training sessions for the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services.
How to deal with dementia is the most bewildering of end-of-life issues, whether for oneself or for a family member. Most of us would choose almost any other scenario for our last months or years, but the choice is often not ours to make. We can file advance directives (mine includes a “Dementia Provision“) and express our wishes and do brain exercises; still, one in seven Americans, according to most fairly recent reports, now suffers from dementia and the numbers are on the rise.
Here’s one interesting perspective. My greatly beloved brother-in-law, who recently relocated with my sister to a retirement community, has Parkinson’s. Though his mobility and function are diminished, the disease has yet to affect his mind. Several weeks ago he told me he no longer fears dementia. “I see people more and more with varying stages of dementia,” he said, “and I believe you can be happy.”
But you can also wander off.