The number of older people reported missing in Canada is raising an alarm bell for advocates, who warn the problem will only get worse as the population ages and more people are diagnosed with dementia or cognitive impairments
While fewer older adults were reported missing during the COVID-19 pandemic, police forces in Quebec, Saskatchewan and Manitoba are among those that have seen an increase this year in missing people over the age of 60.
Laura Tamblyn Watts, the CEO of seniors advocacy organization CanAge, said an aging population means more seniors are getting lost. And police statistics tell only part of the story, she said, because most people are found by family and caregivers before police are called.
“Reports by police should be seen as the tip of the iceberg,” Tamblyn Watts said in a phone interview. “But that iceberg is getting bigger, so the number of people in that tip is getting significantly bigger as well.”
The Canadian Press requested data from police forces across Canada on the number of people 60 and over who were reported missing. Most did not respond by deadline, or said the statistics were unavailable, but data from those that did suggest numbers may be rising.
Montreal police received 442 missing persons calls for people 60 and over between January and the beginning of September this year, compared with 339 over the same period in 2022. In 2020, the number for the same period was 224. In Manitoba, RCMP reported 105 missing persons reports for those over 60 as of Dec. 1, compared to 61 in all of 2022.
Winnipeg police said there were 104 people 60 and over reported missing as of early December, compared with 125 for all of 2022 and 64 in 2019. All of them were found, the force added.
Saskatoon police — the only force to provide a breakdown by medical status — said the number of missing people aged 65 and over with medical disabilities and cognitive impairments rose from 18 in 2022 to 26 in 2023, still well below the 47 people in 2019.
Tamblyn Watts said that approximately 60 per cent of people with cognitive impairments wander, putting them at risk of going missing. “If an older person is gone for more than 24 hours, it’s about a 50/50 chance that they’re going to be at significant harm to their life, so this is a life-and-death situation,” she said.
Antonio Miguel-Cruz, an associate professor at University of Alberta’s faculty of rehabilitation medicine, says “nobody knows with any accuracy” how many Canadians with dementia go missing every year.
Miguel-Cruz, working with a team based at the University of Waterloo, has been trying to compile those numbers with data from health information company MedicAlert, from police and search and rescue organizations and from home care facilities. He said the preliminary data shows that between 50,000 to 60,000 people with dementia in a database of almost 1.6 million Canadians have been reported missing, or about three per cent. That percentage may be low, “but the volume is big,” he said.
He said it’s clear that finding people consumes “tremendous” police resources.
National data compiled by the RCMP shows that the number of missing persons reported by police forces dropped from 5,706 in 2019 to 4,519 in 2020, which was directly related to people staying home due to COVID-19, according to RCMP intelligence analyst Valerie Shaver.
Last year, the numbers started creeping back up, reaching 4,667. As of Dec. 8 this year, there had been 4,507 such reports. Shaver notes that the RCMP data only includes cases reported to the Canadian Police Information Centre and may miss instances where a person was found quickly.
She examined a random sample of 64 RCMP files of missing people aged 60 and over from this year and found that dementia, mental health, Alzheimer’s and “confused, lost or wandered off,” were the top four reasons listed for the disappearances.
Cities and police forces have adapted different strategies to locate people quickly. Some, including Toronto, Halifax, Windsor, Ont., and Saskatoon, have started vulnerable persons registries that contain a person’s photo and information about them that can help if they’re found.
The RCMP is working with experts and other police forces to develop guidelines for officers to carry out interviews with people who are found, in order to better understand what happened.
Some jurisdictions, including in Manitoba, have adopted silver alert systems that broadcast notices, similar to an Amber Alert for abducted children, in cases of seniors who wander because of Alzheimer’s or dementia. However, CanAge’s Tamblyn Watts is among those who worry about alert fatigue.
“The stark reality for why we don’t have silver alerts everywhere is if you are trying to find every person who was lost with dementia you would have your phone pinging almost constantly,” she said.
Tamblyn Watts said that many families are using medical alert bracelets or GPS trackers such as AirTags to ensure that loved ones who wander are found quickly.
Her tips for those who come across an older adult who appears agitated or confused include taking off your glasses and hat to appear more approachable, speaking slowly and non-confrontationally, asking if they need help and checking if they have identification, such as a MedicAlert bracelet.
The Alzheimer Society of Canada forecasts on its website that by 2030, nearly 1 million people in Canada will be living with dementia, rising to 1.7 million by 2050. With those numbers, Tamblyn Watts said it’s “baffling” that Canada hasn’t done more to prepare, including creating a national seniors strategy.
What’s needed, she said, are better health care and supports, “dementia-friendly communities” where everyone is trained to recognize the signs of cognitive impairment and reviews of how services are provided “to make sure that we are serving our population, which has increased longevity.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 16, 2023.