First Responders and Alzheimer’s Disease

April 20, 2012


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By Alan Fleming  

People with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias pose a unique challenge to first responders. An emergency situation can create an emotionally catastrophic reaction in a person with Alzheimer’s. Whether they are the person that needs help or a bystander on the scene, people with Alzheimer’s require special attention. Because they thrive best in a calm and familiar environment, they have considerable difficulty when their routine is disrupted. The Alzheimer’s Association, West Virginia Chapter offers an interactive training module for first responders, specially created to help them handle emergencies where people with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias are present.

The inherent degenerative nature of Alzheimer’s disease creates a variety of communications challenges. Every person with Alzheimer’s is different. The disease progresses through different stages with each person exhibiting an array of symptoms and behaviors specific to Alzheimer’s. How a person with Alzheimer’s is likely to react cannot be predicted. It is critical that first responders be adequately trained and equipped to properly handle the situation as people with Alzheimer’s are just as likely to become aggressive as passive when facing an emergency. Without a thorough understanding of the disease and techniques for effective communication, first responders could inadvertently escalate an already delicate situation.

Wandering is the most common emergency situation people with Alzheimer’s face. Of all people with Alzheimer’s or a related dementia, 60 percent will wander and become lost at some point in their progression with the disease. Wandering can be dangerous—even life threatening. Not only do people with Alzheimer’s that wander not know where they are going, but they typically are not conscious of their environment or dressed appropriately for prolonged exposure in the elements. In order to alleviate concerns regarding these situations, by caregivers and people with Alzheimer’s alike, the Alzheimer’s Association partnered with MedicAlert® to create the MedicAlert® + Safe Return® identification program.

MedicAlert® + Safe Return® identification program is a 24-hour nationwide emergency response service that aids first responders in identifying, locating and helping those with Alzheimer’s or other dementias. If an individual with Alzheimer’s or a related dementia wanders and becomes lost, caregivers call the emergency response line to report it. A community support network will be activated, including local association chapters and law enforcement agencies to help reunite the family member or caregiver with the person who wandered. If emergency personnel or any citizen find the person, they can call the toll-free number listed on the person’s ID jewelry. MedicAlert® + Safe Return® will notify their listed contacts, making sure the person is safely returned home.

Recently, a gentleman from St. Albans was enrolled in the program when he wandered. For some time, his family assumed that he was nearby and did not contact the police or any emergency service. In reality, he had gotten a ride from a stranger on the road and was eventually discovered in eastern Kanawha County. It was there that he was identified by his MedicAlert® + Safe Return® bracelet by an observant police officer. The police contacted the service who then placed the police in contact with the Alzheimer’s Association, West Virginia Chapter. From there, the Association was able to fully advise responders on the scene how to care and help the person that had wandered until they could return him safely to his family.

MedicAlert® + Safe Return® is one of several tools that the Alzheimer’s Association has that assists first responders in helping, locating and communicating with people with Alzheimer’s or other dementias. Another of these tools is Comfort Zone, a location-based mapping service that enables caregivers and families to track where their loved one with Alzheimer’s is at all times. The ability to accurately locate a person with Alzheimer’s is beneficial in emergencies such as floods or other natural disasters where people are easily displaced. Armed with this service, responders can identify who people with Alzheimer’s are, where they are located on the scene and respond accordingly.

As our population ages and we have more and more individuals developing Alzheimer’s, it is vital we all strive to keep this very vulnerable population safe. There are 48,000 West Virginians, part of 5.4 million Americans, currently living with Alzheimer’s disease. There are a number of factors that contribute to the incidence rate, but the dominant risk factor remains age. West Virginia has the third highest median age (40.3) in the nation. Training, such as that offered by the Alzheimer’s Association, West Virginia Chapter adequately prepares West Virginia first responders to handle the growing portion of our population with Alzheimer’s disease

For more information on safety issues regarding Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias or to inquire about the trainings and workshops offered by the Alzheimer’s Association, West Virginia Chapter please call (800)272-3900 or visit

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