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Communities can help residents with Alzheimer's who wander return home

Stephen Dunham, of Clinton, says doctors diagnosed his wife, Kay, with Alzheimer's disease in 2004. He said he has done everything he can to keep her safe, but she has wandered off previously.
Stephen Dunham, of Clinton, says doctors diagnosed his wife, Kay, with Alzheimer's disease in 2004. He said he has done everything he can to keep her safe, but she has wandered off previously.
Brian Champagne, Deseret News

CLINTON — A Clinton man wants Utahns to become more aware of Alzheimer's patients and how to help them following the death of a Roy man this week.

John Thurgood, 82, a man with Alzheimer's disease, died of exposure after wandering away from home for more than 24 hours. Sometimes returning Alzheimer's patients home safely after they've wandered off takes the help of the community.

The conversations during 16 years of marriage have little depth now for Stephen and Kay Dunham.

"Memory loss started in 2004," he said. "She was ruled incompetent in 2012."

Dunham said doctors diagnosed his wife with Alzheimer's in 2004. And since then, he has cherished every moment he can with his wife. He wants to keep her safe.

"There have been instances where there has been wandering," Dunham said. "We have a bracelet that we've had for about six years that has a phone number that can be called."

So far, he said, they've been lucky his wife has not wandered too far.

"One time I left the garage door open when we first moved here, and Kay ran out the front door, and she was halfway down the block," Dunham said.

He has a part-time, live-in caretaker who helps him care for his wife. He also takes extra precaution to keep her from wandering away from home. The Dunhams' front door requires a key to unlock from the inside, and an opaque film covers the window near the front door to keep her from being distracted by things happening outside.

Even Bengee, their 9-year-old dog, helps care for Dunham's wife.

"She's very sensitive to Kay and will alert me whenever she senses anything is wrong," he said.

Dunham said he and his wife take walks together often so she can feel a sense of normalcy.

"We let her roam in the backyard," he said, "but we have to padlock the gate."

Dunham said everyone needs to learn how to help Alzheimer's patients who have wandered away from home.

"When you're dealing with any kind of dementia, you don't want to confront people and get in their face," he said. "The best thing is to get on their level."

Dunham said at that point, try to talk to the person in a calm manner.

"Try to figure out what their dominant side is. In most instances, it's their right side," he said. "If you go to that side, that engages a part of the brain that reduces the anxiety right off the bat."

Some Alzheimer's patients wear bracelets that have information to help identify them as "someone with 'memory loss,’” which Dunham said should have enough information to help contact family members.

As more Americans age, the rate of Alzheimer's is expected to increase.

"More people are going to be diagnosed with Alzheimer's as 10,000 people a day turn 65 in our country," said Ronnie Daniel, executive director of the Alzheimer's Association Utah Chapter. "Right now in the state of Utah, there are over 29,000 people diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, and there are over 142,000 people caring for them."

Statistically, 1 in 9 people at 65 will have Alzheimer's, and at age 85, it increases to 1 in 3, he said.

As the baby boomer population continues to move through their senior years, the disease will impact many Utahns, Daniel said.

Utahns are healthier and tend to live longer, he said, which could mean that Alzheimer's rates in the Beehive State will double by 2025 — a potentially costly and devastating situation for many Utah families to handle.

"It's better for family members and caregivers to be prepared for that," Daniel said.

Dunham said he knows all too well the cost of Alzheimer's and recommends people start planning for it in their 40s through private insurance. He said his wife's part-time caregiver is covered by insurance.

"The states aren't in the position to afford to take care of it," Dunham said. "We both bought policies when we were in our 50s that make it very affordable."

The Alzheimer's Association of Utah has teamed up with Medic Alert to help patients who wander off and become lost.

"We know that 60 percent of people with Alzheimer's and dementia at some point will wander," Daniel said. "This program doesn't necessarily stop people from wandering, but we have a very high success rate of returning people home safely."

Families can enroll in the Safe Return program by calling 888-572-8566 or registerin online at MedicAlert.org.

For Dunham, caring for someone with Alzheimer's disease, especially those who wander, takes a village — people looking out for each other.

"Reach out to one another. Have a conversation," he said. "You don't have to have a conversation too long before you realize that something's not quite right."

A little awareness, Dunham said, can go a long way to returning loved ones with Alzheimer's to their homes safely.

For more information on Alzheimer's, call the Alzheimer's Association help line at 800-272-3900.

Email: niyamba@deseretnews.com