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DIGGING DEEPER: Elderly wandering cases causing concern, as family isolation continues

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TUCSON (KVOA) - When a person who suffers from dementia, Alzheimer's, or certain other health conditions goes missing, authorities often turn to the public through a Silver Alert or via social media to help find them and bring them home.

Recently, the Pima County Sheriff's deputies alerted us about a 72-year-old man who was missing. The week prior, it was an 87-year-old man, who ended up being located about 130-miles away.

Both cases ended well, however that doesn't always happen.

The big concern is people over the age of 65, who may not be aware of their surroundings, especially if they suffer from some form of cognitive impairment, or otherwise are considered vulnerable.

"We want to make sure that we reunite them; that they get the help that they need, just in case they are in any distress," said Pima County Sheriff's Deputy Marissa Hernandez.

The success of the search often depends on how long it takes for someone to discover the person is missing, and then call 911. Any potential delay in that initial call could end up making the search area larger.

"Sometimes there is a delay because they often want to want to look for that individual themselves; and when they can't locate them that's when they call the Sheriff's department," Deputy Hernandez told News 4 Tucson.

Pima county's population is getting older, and more people need care. However, caregivers are not always able to provide around-the-clock supervision. Especially when it comes to someone who may wander.

"If you have somebody who is desperately trying to get out and get somewhere; it could be a childhood home or to work or to school, you know something from their past, if you have somebody who is determined to do that, it is best for them to be in a secure facility," said Amber Gin a family caregiver support specialist with Pima Council on Aging.

Last July, a 79-year-old man walked away from a care-home on Tucson's northwest side. Deputies issued a Silver Alert, but sadly, their search ended when his body was found in a desert area three days later.

Thankfully, in most cases authorities do find the missing person.

However, with restrictions on family visits due to the pandemic, keeping those who are likely to wander where they are supposed to be is a challenge.

Though at this point, Gin says she has not seen an increase in wandering cases, the pandemic presents an extremely difficult situation.

"There is a lot more isolation; there is a lot more stress and agitation. People aren't able to see their loved ones, and that always brings up a lot of emotions; a lot of distress," Gin told News 4 Tucson.

For families who do have an aging loved one who may have a mental decline, whether at home or in an assisted-living facility, the Pima Council on Aging offers many caregiver resources.

Gin says it is also important to keep on hand updated, even weekly photos of your loved one, and to make sure that when possible, they engage in exercise or other tasks that help them maintain their sense of purpose.

Gin adds it's critical to build a support network, who will be there when seconds count.

"Get to know your neighborhood, first of all, and get to know your neighbors, and let them know you have a person who is living with dementia, and they should not be out alone."

The Alzheimer's Association calls the effects of the pandemic "profound" and has described the challenges it has created for people living with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia.

Paul Birmingham

Paul Birmingham is an Investigative Producer for KVOA News 4 Tucson. He is a three time Edward R. Murrow award winner, native Tucsonan, and a proud Arizona Wildcat.

Alexis Berdine

Alexis Berdine is an Investigative Multi-Media Journalist at KVOA.

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