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Rise in cases of missing elderly persons a concern as baby boomers age

The number of people over age 85 in is expected to triple by 2045 to nearly 2.5 million, according to Statistics Canada. There are also concerns about the rising number of missing-persons cases involving the elderly, who are most at risk of dementia. (Shutterstock / Varderesyan Nunik - image credit)
The number of people over age 85 in is expected to triple by 2045 to nearly 2.5 million, according to Statistics Canada. There are also concerns about the rising number of missing-persons cases involving the elderly, who are most at risk of dementia. (Shutterstock / Varderesyan Nunik - image credit)

Canadians are living longer, and as a result, the elderly population is expected to balloon over the next several decades, according to Statistics Canada estimates.

With that comes further pressure on an already strained home and health-care sector, and growing concern about a rise in the number of missing-person cases involving older Canadians.

On Thursday, London police reported the disappearance of two residents, aged 86 and 91. The reason for their disappearance was not made public, and both have since been located and are safe, police said.

Although neither are among the 9.2 million people who make up Canada's baby boomer population, the fact the generational cohort remains the largest in the country at 25 per cent raises the likelihood such missing-persons reports will become a bigger problem over time.

The head of CanAge, a national seniors' advocacy organization, said they're already seeing an increase in the number of elderly people getting lost in their communities.

"With our population aging rapidly, and the percentage of people who are living at home with inadequate supports and with dementia, this is an issue far more on the rise," said CanAge CEO and founder Laura Tamblyn Watts.

"What many people don't realize is that about 75 per cent of people with dementia will always live in the community, in their own homes…. We're just now starting to grapple with how to ensure that people are safe in their communities."

Statistics Canada says the number of people over 85 here is expected to triple by 2045 to nearly 2.5 million. There's also an increased number of Canadians living with dementia, with Alzheimer's the most common form of the condition that affects memory, thinking and other brain-related abilities.

According to the Alzheimer Society of Canada (ASC), the number of Canadians with dementia is expected to rise to more than 990,000 by 2030, from nearly 600,000 in 2020. By 2050, more than 1.7 million Canadians could have dementia.

Factoring in that six in 10 people with dementia are at risk of becoming lost, according to ASC, the number of missing-person cases involving elderly Canadians will likely increase.

"When we have members of the community that have dementia ... they are more likely to leave their residence and go wandering," said Janelle Coultes, president of the Search and Rescue Volunteer Association of Canada (SARVAC), which represents provincial and territorial ground search-and-rescue associations.

Sometimes the person will be found by family quickly. But if they leave the house again, it's often at night, putting them at greater risk of injury or death, especially in winter, she said.

"The cases that we tend to get called for ... London is relatively busy being called every one to two weeks on average. The majority of them are for the elderly, with some sort of dementia… It's increased over the years, for sure."

Calls for creation of 'silver alert' system

There have been calls to set up a provincial or national "silver alert" system, similar to the Amber Alert for missing and abducted children.

Earlier this year, Hamilton Mountain NDP MPP Monique Taylor put forward a bill that would amend the Missing Persons Act and expand Ontario Provincial Police alerts to include vulnerable persons of all ages. The bill passed first reading in March and was referred to a standing committee.

There is concern, however, that alerts for missing elderly residents would be so frequent that they would become annoying to the public and be ignored, Tamblyn Watts said.

"Unlike an Amber Alert, which seems more restricted, the reality of older people with cognitive impairment wandering lost in the community is that it tends to be so prevalent, the concern is the alerts would be going off all the time," she said.

Some Canadian cities, including Halifax and Toronto, have established voluntary vulnerable persons registries, with Sudbury being the first.

A voluntary Alzheimer Wandering Registry was also established by the Alzheimer Society of Canada in 1995 in partnership with the RCMP and local police forces.

Both Coultes and Tamblyn Watts said there are steps family members can take to keep their elderly relatives safe, including door alarms and geolocation devices like AirTags.

Several Canadian police departments also participate in the international Project Lifesaver, which utilizes a battery-powered radio device attached to a person's wrist or ankle.

Ultimately, Tamblyn Watts says what's needed is a better approach to dementia planning, and more government support to address issues that come with an aging population.

"Individual municipalities and good-intentioned community groups are really being left without governmental support to do this on their own. Ontario is really far behind where it needs to be particularly given its density of population," she said.

"The numbers, and you can see from our report that we wrote on dementia just last year, the reports are staggering in terms of our numbers. And this is just the very tip of the iceberg."