Public Safety

Racing Against the Clock to Find Lost Dementia Patients

Two lost dementia patients were eventually found safe last weekend. How were they found? The Sheriff’s Search and Rescue team was called out. But wait, when you think of a Search and Rescue team you usually don’t think of searchers stalking the streets or cruising through coffee shops. Yet that is what Search and Rescue teams do when their search is in an urban area.

Time and information are critical in a missing person call, particularly if the person has any form of dementia or other medical issue.

“An Alzheimer’s or dementia search, whether it’s rural or urban, has the biggest sense of urgency,” said Sgt. Don Parker of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue unit. “The outcome after 24 hours, if we haven’t found them, is usually not good.”

Someone with dementia is more likely to walk and walk until they can’t walk anymore and then they will crawl until they can no longer move. That’s usually the end for them, because of dehydration and conditions that are either too cold or too hot, said Parker.

Over the weekend one man was found by a citizen in Vista before searchers set out. The dementia patient walked behind a vacant home to the back of the property and was lying under a tree.

The second missing person had “escaped” from a new care facility late that same evening. Volunteers searched overnight and resumed the search again in the morning but the man was eventually found sitting in a Park and Ride lot in the Spring Valley-Casa de Oro area. An alert resident noticed that the man appeared disoriented and called police.

Parker said the Sheriff’s Search and Rescue team is more than happy to get helpful information from the public. In the first case, no one could have seen the man at the back of the property from the street. It was a neighbor who spotted him from a driveway after hearing announcements about a missing man. In the second case, the man was found just outside of the search area.

Parker said a person’s state of mind determines how the search is handled.  People who do not have dementia are less likely to put themselves in a more hazardous situation besides being lost. Reasonably, a lost hiker would know to seek, shelter, food and water and stay put.

“An Alzheimer’s patient doesn’t know what to do, all they know is to walk and that’s the tragedy of that disease because they just don’t realize that they’re in trouble,” Parker said.

The Sheriff’s ASTREA (Aerial Support to Regional Enforcement Agencies) unit often works along with Search and Rescue volunteer teams to help find missing people.

“It’s so much about information gathering and narrowing your scope right from the beginning,” said Pilot Tim Johnson. “You’re just trying to determine your best course of action.”

Johnson said pilots hope to arrive on scene quickly and broadcast the person’s description in the area where they were last seen. Often that generates some sightings or clues that could guide their search.

The aerial vantage point is helpful during the day if someone is wearing bright clothing or if the person is located in a remote area like the Cedar Creek and Three Sisters Falls areas. At night, the helicopter’s heat-source finding technology can be a life-saver.

Johnson recalls a case a few years ago when they were assisting San Diego Police Department with a search in the Torrey Pines area at night.

 “We spotted him in low brush, totally out of view from any deputy, lying along a trail. There’s no way a patrol deputy would have spotted him from the ground,” Johnson said.

Someone who has dementia or Alzheimer’s will generally stay in a flat area, usually within a mile and a half from their last known point, Parker said. But he’s been on numerous searches where that’s not been the case too. One man walked 8 miles away, another woman was 12 miles away, completely out of the search area – and both were alive, he said. Walking long distances isn’t always the only risk. Parker said they have found people dead less than a quarter mile from where they were last seen.

Searches are systematic and involve combing an area thoroughly in a grid, sometimes more than once. Yet, searchers often apply a little bit of intuition, a little bit of best guesses, and a lot of  common sense, Parker said. In addition to a person’s frame of mind, searchers also consider weather, terrain, witness statements and look at the history of the patient’s former jobs and hobbies.

People with dementia might think they are going back to work. One patient was found at a construction site sitting on a pile of lumber. As far as he was concerned, he was just going to work, Parker said.

Johnson said missing hikers, elderly and dementia cases and lost juveniles are regular calls for his unit. They usually get about 2-3 a week of each, he estimated.

“We have a lot more people who have Alzheimer’s and dementia,” said Parker. “The good thing is deputies are becoming more educated about the issues with dementia,” Parker said, and that means they can help find them sooner, sometimes without having to call in Search and Rescue.

The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department hosts a photo-based registry for dementia patients and children with special needs which can be accessed only by regional law enforcement in the event that the person has gone missing, said sheriff’s spokeswoman Melissa Aquino. The free service is for all San Diego County residents and not only includes photos but also special information if the person is non-verbal, doesn’t like to be touched or only responds to a certain name, she said. To register a loved one or a patient in your care, visit


Yvette Urrea Moe is a communications specialist with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact