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Family's story brings awareness to Alzheimer's disease
The son of missing Coquitlam man Shin Noh hopes the community will learn from his family's experience and take steps to learn more about dementia and how to keep seniors safe when they wander.
Sam Noh said if there's a silver lining in the disappearance of his father a month ago, it's that the community has come together and more people know about Alzheimer's disease than they did before.
"People in the Tri-Cities and in Vancouver will know about the disease now," he said. "It's a blessing in disguise."
Noh's acknowledgement comes after a credible sighting at a Tim Horton's in New Westminster failed to produce a video image of the 64-year-old Shin. As well, Coquitlam RCMP has issued a letter to the community saying that every investigative step possible was taken to find the man.
In the weeks since Noh went missing from his Coquitlam home, thousands of people have responded on Facebook and hundreds of people have taken part in deep-woods and neighbourhood searches. Coquitlam RCMP have followed more than 100 leads and conducted air and ground searches, and Coquitlam Search and Rescue has also been involved.
Although Shin Noh's disappearance has been hard on the family, his son said he will continue to raise awareness about Alzheimer's disease and dementia, and find ways to support families whose elderly loved ones wander and go missing.
"This disease, there's going to be a lot of families going through this. Our family is going to be an advocate."
SILVER ALERT IN THE U.S.
One idea is to advocate for a Silver Alert, a public notification system that is used in some American states to broadcast information about missing elderly people. In Noh's case, there were time lags between sightings and when the information was passed on to volunteers; lack of awareness; and even people who thought Shin Noh had been found.
His son would like a more seamless method of getting information to people on SkyTrain and in other areas, and more information made available to families about the risks of wandering for people with dementia.
His father wore a medic alert bracelet with a hotline number emergency responders could have used to identify him but since he wasn't discovered, the information was never utilized.
Sam Noh now wonders whether a phone with a GPS tracking system could have been used in the first few hours. Because Noh couldn't use a cell phone, it was never considered but it could work for other families.
But according to the Alzheimer's Society of BC, there is no one strategy to protect elderly people who wander and no easy solution to the problem.
"There's no silver bullet and there a number of safety concerns when a person has dementia," said Kathy Kennedy, director of programs and services, whose society provides information, and support for people with dementia and their families.
As many as 60% to 70% of people with dementia will wander and although there are steps families can take to prevent this (see sidebar), the community needs to be aware of the disease so people know what to do when they spot an elderly person who seems disoriented and confused.
"The idea of the community pulling together [is necessary]," Kennedy said. "It's not an uncommon behaviour at all."
There are many reasons people with dementia wander and while this behaviour occurs most frequently in later stages, people who get Alzheimer's at a young age may get disoriented and lost because of over-exertion, and families need to plan for this occurrence, too.
She said the community needs to be more aware as the disease takes its toll on aging baby boomers. Sometimes, an alert individual can make all the difference, such as when a group of teenagers helped return a person with dementia to their family after noticing them alone in a fast food restaurant for many hours.
"If we are all aware," Kennedy said, "we may be ready to intervene."
TIPS AND SUGGESTIONS
The Alzheimer's Society of BC provides a Wandering Information Kit on its website (www.alzheimerbc.org). It includes information about why people wander and tips on managing this behaviour, including various safety mechanisms, including sound monitors, camouflaging exits and other suggestions.
The Alzheimer's Society also recommends talking to the person when they are in the early stages of dementia to get their input on how they want their disease to be managed. Families can act with more confidence when they know the wishes of their loved one.
If your loved one goes missing, contact the authorities right away — when someone with dementia goes missing, it's an emergency.
People with Alzheimer's disease have a 50% chance of being injured or dying from exposure, hypothermia or drowning if they are not found within 12 hours.
They are often not aware that they are lost.
They often walk in a straight line until they become stuck
HOW TO APPROACH THEM
If you see an older person who may be lost, note that people with dementia may be confused, irritable and frightened; and they may be unable to communicate or understand you so you should:
• approach them from the front;
• speak calmly and softly, and address the person by name if you know it;
• ask one thing at a time (yes or no questions are best);
• back up your words with gestures;
• not touch them too roughly or quickly as doing so could cause increased stress.
– Alzheimer's Society BC