Missing Persons with Memory Loss and the Cops Who Get Them Home

Missing Persons with Memory Loss and the Cops Who Get Them Home

By Stephen Owsinski

Lately, I’ve been hearing first-hand accounts from friends and family mentioning instances of people with dementia and Alzheimer’s…and how the police handle reports of missing person cases in the demographics.

On March 21, 2024, officers with the Hemet Police Department encountered such a call, involving an elderly individual with dementia who wandered away from the care facility where they resided (pictured above).

Here is the account from a Hemet PD spokesperson:

“When people with dementia become lost, they may become confused, afraid, anxious, agitated, and aggressive towards anyone unfamiliar approaching them.

“Yesterday, one of our officers and the CIT team responded to a call for service of a patient who left the care facility, refused to go back inside, and took off from the location. Officer Termonfils was able to locate the patient, assisted him back to the care facility, and even stopped by for a little treat.

“It’s important for officers to understand the signs of physical and mental conditions, to have a better understanding and interaction with members of the community.”

Indeed, it is important. However, police academies generally do not delve too deeply into clinical studies beyond First Aid administration. But cops typically seek out additional learning opportunities…

Back in the day, daily bulletins arriving in the mail were posted in the squad room for all cops to see and consider for “advanced training.”

(Photo courtesy of the Montrose Police Department.)

Submitting the requisite paperwork for the police administration’s approval is another animal altogether. They usually count the fiscal beans and, if the funds are available to send an officer or more to a training venture, they gauge the potential need for cops to be versed in any given aspect…such as

That method grants official certification in a certain realm and affords the trained officer(s) to return to their respective agency and teach others what they learned from the course.

My department had a few cops interested in taking American Sign Language classes (ASL) to effectively enable us to helpfully facilitate communications with anyone we interacted with who relied primarily on ASL to convey messages.

As I often cite, police personnel are a resourceful lot…

One of our public safety dispatchers had a loved one impacted by Alzheimer’s and was well-attuned to the sensitive nuances involved in handling calls from citizens whose loved one walked off, activating a search-and-rescue cadre from the last known location and spanned outward from there. I suspect that is how the Hemet Police officers mitigated the incident cited above.

Naturally, whether via staff at a licensed memory care facility or from a residence shared by loved ones, the bread-and-butter details from those who are intimately familiar with the missing person are crucial.

Among the calls having to do with missing persons suffering a form of memory loss, fundamental background such as last-known clothing description, any assistive devices employed, desired places to visit on outings, behavioral traits, etc.

The search is on…

Often, subsequent calls come in…from merchants and citizens who happened to come upon someone “who seems lost” and “is not speaking.”  Police dispatchers ask questions of the party calling it in and send officers to the location.

Of the missing women reported to our agency, my squad found their facial expressions exhibiting recognition of the police uniform. Some hooked their arm with that of a cop…and made the slow trek back to from whence they wandered.

Regarding missing men, most saw the police uniform and engaged in chats about their military service days. I found this to be one of the poignant points of police work, benefiting all parties, sealed with a sigh of relief.

(Photo courtesy of the Gadsden Police Department.)

Personally, a loved one diagnosed with dementia encountered a rough road as the brain deteriorated to the extent that she would refer to me while talking to me as if I was some stranger whom she was apprising about me.

I dug more deeply beyond my fundamental understanding of dementia…

Ultimately, a memory care facility became the logical option to help sustain her. That, too, became an issue.

As the Hemet Police spokesperson iterated, people afflicted with dementia can become agitated and assail others physically.

From administrators or staff at memory care facilities, loved ones may receive calls that the family member in their care has become belligerent and assaultive toward caregivers trying to meet needs.

It can become a paradox for police: reports of physical assault and leveraging the lack of mental capacity to distinguish “intent.” Compassionate caregivers know this, though, and do not seek criminal charges against those for whom they are responsible, understanding the neurologically degraded dynamics.

The Internet is ripe with free resource material posted by health-related clinicians so cops can consume nuances about debilitating ailments for a better understanding beyond conventional, instructing law enforcement officers on “how to respond to anger and aggression in dementia.”

Fortune published accounts of “Die Hard” actor Bruce Willis’s affliction with dementia, with his daughter candidly attesting to her dad’s symptoms and how the family adapted to meet his needs.

Ultimately, law enforcement officers treat citizens impacted by memory woes no different than they would their loved ones with dementia and Alzheimer’s.

In Florida police parlance, numerical code “10-25” means “In contact,” as illustrated/overheard in the following brief footage of deputies recovering a missing person with dementia who wandered away and settled in the brushy terrain scorched by the sun.

State governments have enacted the Silver Alert system by publicizing messages on overhead LED signs with basic information such as vehicular descriptions believed to be driven by elders who have cognitive disabilities.

The Arizona Department of Public Safety defines the Silver Alert concept as follows:

“A Silver Alert is activated when a person with specific cognitive or developmental disabilities, as defined by statute, or a person the age of 65 or older goes missing.

“The purpose of the Silver Alert program is to establish a notification system that provides immediate information to the public through issuing and coordinating alerts using various resources following a subject ‘gone missing’ when specific criteria have been met.”

Among the criteria, this is the first qualification considered by law enforcement officers initiating an official Missing Person report:

“The person is 65 years of age or older or has been diagnosed with a developmental disability as outlined in ARS 36-551, Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.”

In Florida, the Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) outlines its Silver Alert criteria as such:

  • The person must be 60 years and older; or, The person must be 18-59 and law enforcement has determined the missing person lacks the capacity to consent and that the use of dynamic message signs may be the only possible way to rescue the missing person.
  • Must have an irreversible deterioration of intellectual faculties (e.g. Alzheimer’s disease or dementia) that has been verified by law enforcement.

Given the Sunshine State’s notoriety for a robust retirement population, the Silver Alert messaging graces the overhead LED signs along highways and byways routinely. It is mindboggling and disheartening to know someone out there has no established destination…no fault of their own that a debilitating ailment maligned their self-sufficiency.

(Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Portland Police.)

 Cops go out, search, recover missing persons, and delicately return them to caregivers. For the missing person recovered by the police, it is akin to coming home with a compass. If it is to a private residence shared with family, that address is highlighted in the CAD to inform first responders of unique circumstances and relevant history.

In metropolis locales, the road ahead is replete with a populace among which someone with cognitive decline may easily blend and not stand out. Nevertheless, LEOs look everywhere.

This topic is reminiscent of the Needle in a Haystack lore and the efforts undertaken by saviors seeking to recover valuable things. In this case, proverbial many-hat-wearing cops become seekers and ushers…leading folks to safe places.