Woman’s death highlights challenge of keeping rising number of dementia patients safe

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
Woman’s death highlights challenge of keeping rising number of dementia patients safe

By all accounts, Joan Warren should have been safe.

The 76-year-old woman, who suffered from dementia, was living in a North Vancouver care home designed to house people like her. She wore a special wristband to alert staff if she left the building and the entrances were supposed to be monitored.

But Warren vanished from the Sunrise Senior Living facility on Friday. A search of neighbouring streets, alleys, carports and other buildings turned up nothing. Her frozen body was discovered several kilometres away by a hiker in the forested area. She may not have been wearing her wristband.

An investigation is underway at Sunrise to discover how Warren was able to leave the home undetected.

“Out of respect for the family’s privacy, we cannot discuss any additional details but can say that we are conducting an internal investigation of this matter and continue to take every precaution to maintain the safety of all of our residents,” a spokeswoman said in an email to the Globe and Mail.

Experts say Warren's tragic death points out the challenges of keeping the rising number of dementia sufferers safe.

The Canadian Medical Association (CMJ) and the Opposition New Democrats are calling on the federal government to develop a national strategy to deal with dementia, The Canadian Press reported Tuesday.

CMJ president-elect Chris Simpson said a plan is needed as the health-care system struggles to cope with 750,000 Canadians suffering with various forms of dementia.

[ Related: Mother with dementia 'warehoused,' daughter says ]

In October, a 91-year-old dementia patient who had gone missing twice in the last year, died after falling from a second-floor hospital window, CBC News reported. The week before, a 91-year-old woman with dementia died after an altercation with another patient at a Nova Scotia facility.

A 95-year-old dementia patient attacked and killed his 85-year-old roommate at a Vernon, B.C., care facility last August, while a 79-year-old man Kamloops, B.C., man died of injuries sustained after he was attacked at a Kamloops, B.C., extended-care home.

Wandering is one of the biggest challenges.

“Sixty to 70 per cent of people with dementia will wander at some point during the illness,” Kathy Kennedy, director of programs and services with the Alzheimer Society of B.C., told the Globe.

The tendency is caused by changes in the brain that impel dementia sufferers to move, to search for something or try to "go home," the Globe said.

Some professionals believe one way to cope with wandering is to allow people to walk safely in a secure area. Another approach involves having patients wear GPS-equipped bracelets that allow them to be monitored or tracked, if necessary. But as Warren's death demonstrates, it's not a foolproof solution.

“There truly is no one thing . . . that could be the solution if someone has wandered. We really recommend looking at multiple strategies," Kennedy told the Globe.

A 2010 report commissioned by the Alzheimer Society of Canada warned that the current number of Canadians suffering from dementia could more than double within a generation from 500,000 to 1.1 million. And the cost of caring for them would soar from $15 billion to $153 billion.

"Canada is facing a dementia epidemic and needs to take action now," the report said.

The society recommended investing more in dementia research, improving support for families who look after members with dementia, a focus on prevention and early intervention, building more integrated care into the health system and bolstering the workforce devoted to dementia care.

[ Related: Critics call on federal government to develop national dementia strategy ]

It's a global problem. The advocacy group Alzheimer's Disease International said figures point to an alarming rise in the number people with dementia in recent years, Reuters reported last week. The group estimated 44 million people suffer from dementia worldwide, a figure that could rise to 135 million by 2050.

Roughly three out of five Canadians with dementia go missing at some point, The Canadian Press reported earlier this year as the Alzheimer Society launched an awareness program on the issue.

"If you get lost and you are lost for more than a day, then your chances of survival are very slim," David Harvey, the society's head of public policy and program initiatives, told CP.

Half of those who go missing for at least 24 hours risk serious injury or death, he added.

A 66-year-old Toronto woman with dementia froze to death in January 2011 a block from her home.

Her husband discovered her missing at 2 a.m., the Toronto Star reported. Neighbours ignored her screams, some apparently believing it was an argument or a drunk. Police found marks on a car door and on the screen door of a home, suggesting she tried to find shelter, the Star said.