A couple of months ago, a former national level cricketer's father went missing in Mysore's Devaraja Market. The local police sprang into action and the gentleman was found in a couple of hours. In that time, though he had wandered some 5 km from the spot he was last seen (the market). News reports quoted the police as saying the elderly gentleman suffered from “age-related forgetfulness”. Now, I don't know if the cricketer's dad has some form of dementia. If he does, I do hope he is getting treatment (medicines can slow the process of brain degeneration but not halt or reverse it). I also hope that his fasmart technology, privacy, Facebook, mily is alert always whenever they go anywhere. Because the elderly gentleman, if he has dementia, can easily go missing again.
Such wandering is a behaviour associated with dementia. According to
the Alzheimer's Association of the US (www.alz.org), six in 10 people
with dementia will wander. More frighteningly, research by the
organisation shows that some 50 percent of people who wander “will
suffer serious injury or death if they are not found within 24 hours.”
Dementia is not a disease in itself.
According to the National Health Service (NHS) of the United Kingdom,
dementia is caused by damage in the brain. “The most common causes of
dementia are called neurodegenerative diseases, and include Alzheimer's
disease (AD), frontotemporal dementia, and dementia with Lewy bodies.
With these diseases, the brain cells degenerate and die more quickly
than is part of the normal ageing process. This leads to a decline in a
person's mental and, sometimes, physical abilities. The gradual changes
and damage to brain cells are caused by a build-up of abnormal proteins
in the brain”.
Lost and found
In my family, we know the dangers of wandering very well because my
father has gone missing twice in the past three years. Once on a train
journey from Bengaluru back to my home town of Kozhikode in Kerala, he
got off at a train station (we later learned it was Palakkad station)
and walked away. And on another occasion, he slipped out of my home (in
Kozhikode) one early morning, opened the gate (which was unfortunately
unlocked) and well, disappeared.
By a miracle, we got him back, both times. That we found him again is
entirely due to the kindness and compassion shown by strangers, who
took pity on an old man and alerted the police.
Why does my father do this? He is now so disoriented that he believes
he must “go to Calicut” (that is what he says). No matter how many
times we tell him, “You are in Calicut,” he will not accept or
acknowledge that fact. Instead, every day, he asks my mother in
Malayalam: “What time is the bus to Calicut.”
And she replies: “Tomorrow morning.”
With that he is happy, for about 10 minutes.
Then he asks the same question again. Every day. More or less,
throughout the day. And that is why, given an opportunity (if the gate
is unlocked or the front door open), my father is likely to wander off
again. Because “going to Calicut” is his only reality.
Resources on dementia have myriad reasons for this wandering behaviour. According to Alzheimer's Austalia (http://www.fightdementia.org.au),
it could be that the person with dementia wanders because they are in a
changed environment (a new place of residence). Or they may simply want
to escape from a noisy/changed environment. Wandering could be due to
short-term memory loss — suppose they set off to a shop or a friend's
house, but forget where they were going or why. Another reason could be
that walking is a way of dealing with excess energy, so perhaps he or
she needs regular exercise.
Or what if he or she has wandered off in search of someone or
something, relating to their past? My father finds it difficult to focus
on one thing now, so perhaps for him wandering is a way of keeping
occupied. Also, changes in the brain, may cause a feeling of
restlessness and anxiety. And this agitation can cause people to pace up
and down or wander off, says Alzheimer's Australia.
Also sometimes, people with dementia often suffer from insomnia, or
wake in the early hours and become disoriented. “Poor eyesight or
hearing loss may mean shadows or night sounds become confusing and
distressing”, the organisation says. And it could even be that, some
people leave the house because they believe “they have a job to do. This
may be related to a former role such as going to work in the morning or
being home for the children in the afternoon,” the organisation adds on
Looking for a loved one
So, how will you look for a person who doesn't remember names, places
or people? Who is unable to ask for help, or make other people
understand what he (or she) is trying to say? If no stranger stops to
help, the dementia sufferer will keep walking, and eventually become
dehydrated, hungry and exhausted. Eventually, he or she will be weakened
by the exertion. Then there is always the ever-present danger of him or
her being knocked down by passing vehicles, and of succumbing to sheer
How can you make sure your loved one is safe? The only way is to
ensure that the person with dementia is never left alone. This can mean
locking the front door/main gate. It means you must inform your
immediate family/neighbours, nearby shopkeepers etc, of his or her
tendency to wander so they can all stay alert.
He or she should carry (or wear) some form of identification. My
ever-resourceful mother has got some cloth name tags embroidered for my
father. She stitches these tags (which say “I am a dementia patient” and
gives my father's name, details of family members, etc.) onto my
father's shirts, especially when they travel. We had a family wedding to
attend last year in Mumbai and at both the Kozhikode and Mumbai
airports, airport staff were especially helpful. “They came forward,
helped us with the luggage, and arranged our transport quickly,” says my
My husband and I also bought an expensive GPS tracking device in the
form of a watch for my father. In theory, as long as my father is
wearing the smart watch, we can track the location of the watch (by
logging in longitude and latitude detals through a given password and
ID). We bought the watch from a private security provider in New Delhi.
Sadly, the watch is of no use and is of very poor quality. It also
requires charging for hours, every day. If charge is low, the device
simply switches off. There are other GPS devices called personal protection devices, in
the form of cellphones. But these are actually meant for use by normal,
healthy people. A person with dementia will never remember to keep the
smart phone on his or her person or even how to use it to call for help.
In other countries, often there exist centralised networks/databanks
of dementia patients, that is coordinated with the local police network.
Once enrolled in the system, each patient is given a personalised
identity kit. So if he or she goes missing, their family can simply
alert the network. In India, the voluntary body Alzheimer's and Related
Disorders Society of India (ARDSI) (http://ardsi.org/) does run 24-hour national helplines but I have no idea how efficiently this works.
In Bengaluru, the Nightingales Medical Trust (NMT) which runs the
Nightingales Centre for Ageing and Alzheimer's (NCAA) in Kasturinagar,
is reportedly planning to reintroduce a project called 'Nightingales
Trace' — identification bracelets containing the name/contact details of
patients enrolled with the trust. NMT had launched the project in 2010,
but met with little success. The reason is simple: “If a dementia patient wearing the bracelet
goes missing, ultimately, a stranger has to stop, check the bracelet and
then inform us or his/her family. Else the bracelets are of no use,” a
source at NCAA tells me. Apparently, NMT is now reworking the bracelets.
If the project works, it will be a wonderful thing. And in fact,
families like mine will be interested in purchasing a bracelet too.
Twice we lost my father. Twice we found him, again. Thanks to the
kindness of strangers. Maybe there is a higher power, watching over us,
(This post was first published on my Connected Lives blog. Here is a link: