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Living with dementia

Information for first responders

Through various circumstances, people with dementia sometimes come into contact with police officers, paramedics and search and rescue personnel.

The situations under which you as a first responder may come into contact with someone living with dementia range from finding a person who is lost, to someone who has been disturbing the peace or has been involved in a criminal activity such as shoplifting.

The purpose of the following information is to provide you with strategies on how to recognize, communicate with and respond to someone living with dementia.

For more information on educational programs and services available in your community contact your local Alzheimer Society office. To find your local Society please click here.


There are no obvious physical characteristics which can easily identify someone with dementia. There are, however, clues that may suggest that a person has a form of dementia.

Dementia may be a possibility when an individual:

  • Appears confused and disoriented
  • Does not understand the current situation or is unable to sort out the obvious, such as his name and address, where he is, or where he was going
  • Has no idea about the time of day or how much time has passed since leaving home
  • Must be told repeatedly who you are and what you want
  • Appears fearful, agitated, angry or is crying
  • Provides inappropriate responses to simple questions, or does not respond at all
  • May have a blank facial expression or one that is inappropriate to the situation
  • Is dressed inappropriately, perhaps overdressed in the summer months or underdressed during cold weather

TIP: You can learn more about dementia and how to recognize it on pages 3 – 5 in our First responders handbook.

Common Situations

You may encounter a person with dementia in a variety of circumstances. The following are some of the more common situations:

  • Abuse
  • Auto accidents
  • Wandering and/or getting lost
  • Making false accusations against others
  • Expressing inappropriate behaviour in public
  • Shoplifting
  • Appearance of intoxication
  • Medical emergencies
  • Fires
  • Hoarding

TIP: More information to help you understand each of these situations is available on pages 6 – 7 in our First responders handbook.

A person with dementia will experience a progressive loss of ability to communicate. The further the disease progresses, the less he will be able to express himself or understand what is being said.

You may find the following strategies helpful when approaching and communicating with a person with Alzheimer’s disease:

  • Identify yourself, e.g., “My name is… I’m here to help you get home.”
  • Approach the person from the front
  • Move slowly; maintain eye contact
  • Address the person by name; speak slowly and clearly
  • Present one idea at a time
  • Repeat/rephrase responses to clarify what he/she is trying to tell you
  • Ask questions requiring “yes” or “no” answers and allow time for a response
  • Back up your words with actions or gestures 
  • Listen actively and acknowledge the person’s emotional state
  • Touching too roughly or quickly could cause increased stress 

Keep in mind that your uniform may make the person with dementia feel anxious. Removing your cap and speaking in a calm voice may help him/her feel more comfortable.

TIP: Get additional communication strategies on pages 8 – 9 in our First responders handbook.

Found someone who is lost? Check for a MedicAlert ID.
MedicAlertMD Sécu-RetourMD MedicAlert
Look for a body-worn MedicAlert ID.
Read the vital information on the back.
Call the 24/7 emergency hotline.

A live, MedicAlert operator can quickly contact caregivers or family.

For more information about the program visit MedicAlert® Safely Home®.



People with dementia can become disoriented and lost even in familiar places. Experience within the Search and Rescue community has revealed the unique behaviours of people who go missing and has shown the importance of a rapid response.

Research has shown that if a person with Alzheimer’s disease is not found within 12 hours of being lost, there is a 50% chance that he/she will be found injured or dead from hypothermia, dehydration or drowning.1 This makes any search an emergency.

Eighty nine percent of people with dementia who are lost will be found within 1.6 km of the point last seen.1 When conducting a search and rescue effort, it is important to know the characteristics of the person you’re searching for.

Unique traits of the person with dementia who is lost include:

  • Not aware that they are lost
  • Walk in a straight line until they become stuck
  • End up in a secluded spot hidden by brush or other cover or are caught in briars or bushes
  • Found in creeks, drainage areas
  • Go straight across fields, creeks, climb over obstructions
  • Will not walk out of a wooded area
  • Hidden from their searchers
  • Do not call out for help (may be anxious and fearful of the people who are searching for them)
  • Do not respond when their name is called (searchers should stay quiet and listen for auditory clues such as singing or whimpering)
  • Often found close to roads and railways
  • May be in a heightened state of anxiety
  • Often found by people not involved in the search, such as neighbours driving by

1Koester R.J. (1999) Lost Alzheimer’s Disease Search Management. dbS productions, Charlottesville, VA.

Reuniting an individual with their caregivers may be very emotional. The person with dementia may not recognize family members/caregivers and at the same time, the caregivers may be extremely anxious and under considerable stress.

Regardless of where the reunion takes place, talk to family members or caregivers to ensure that everyone is calm and able to deal with the situation before you leave.

If an individual who has become lost is not registered with the MedicAlert® Safely Home® program, you may want to suggest registration to facilitate a safe and timely return should an event happen again. As well, suggest that they contact their local Alzheimer Society for information on support services available specific to their community. 

TIP: You can find more advice on reuniting the person and the caregiver on page 10 of our First responders handbook.

Additional resources

First responders handbook: This handbook expands on the information above to provide first responders with more details on how to recognize, communicate with and respond to someone with dementia.

10 Communication Tips (pocket card)

Locating Devices (information sheet with checklist)

Finding Your Way™: the Alzheimer Society of Ontario works closely with police to provide support for persons with dementia and their families in offering information and training on effective ways to handle missing incidents of people with dementia. The Ontario Provincial Police has been an important partner in the design and implementation of this program that offers practical advice on how people with dementia can stay safe. 

Jim’s Story: Alzheimer’s Advocate Jim Mann, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2007, shares his story in a new video called “Jim’s Story” about Dementia-Friendly Communities. Developed in partnership by the Alzheimer Society B.C. and the City of Vancouver, the video covers Jim’s experience of living with dementia and how communities can support people impacted by the disease.


Last Updated: 11/20/15
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