A first-person account of a daughter’s ordeal when her father, a dementia patient, disappeared.

At 3.30 am on January 13, 2011, my father disappeared. At the time, he and my mother were on the Yeswantpur-Kannur Express going back to Kozhikode, Kerala, after staying a few days with me and my family in Bangalore.

My father is 80. He is one of an estimated 3.7 million elderly Indians who suffers from progressive loss of brain function. Dementia is a general term for an incurable brain syndrome that affects memory, learning, orientation, language, comprehension, judgement and behaviour. According to the Alzheimer's and Related Disorders Society of India (ARDSI), Alzheimer's Disease (AD) is the most common cause but dementia can also be caused by strokes, Parkinson's disease, a head injury and other incurable conditions.

Dementia patients are in grave danger when they go missing. They can wander around for hours, dehydrated, disoriented. If they are not found within the first 24 hours, he or she may become seriously injured or even die.

Risky behaviour

On the train, my nearly 70-year-old mother tried to calm my father but, eventually, she dozed off. When she awoke, he wasn't there. A co-passenger had seen my father at 3.30 a.m. standing by one of the compartment doors holding a suitcase. When the train reached Kozhikode at 7.00 a.m., my mother went to the Railway Police Force (RPF). They advised her to wait for a day; then file a First Information Report (FIR).

My husband and I got the news at 8.30 a.m. (my cellphone was off till then) and I informed my sister who lives in Dubai.

Time since disappearance: five hours.

An impossible task?

My father had no tracking device on him. Nor identifying tags/labels on his clothing. So my husband and I began by checking the route and time table of the Yeswantpur-Kannur Express. The train traverses Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala on its nightly journey. It departs from Yeswantpur (in Karnataka) at 8.00 p.m., and by 4.00 a.m. the next morning, it reaches Palakkad station. At 5.00 a.m., it stops at Shoranur; at 6. am, it is at Tirur and at 7am, the train reaches Kozhikode station. My father was last seen at 3.30 a.m. so we decided to begin our search in Palakkad. We flew to Kozhikode. Then my husband drove to Palakkad.

Time since disappearance: 13 hours

Why wander?

Swapna Kishore has identified “triggers” for wandering. “He/she may want to go to their old office. Maybe it is time for the morning walk...or maybe, he/she is ...looking for the bathroom or kitchen or bedroom. He/she sees a door and turns the knob out of habit...” Swapna writes on her blog.

My parents are long-time Kozhikode residents so my mother alerted everyone — neighbours, shop owners, relatives and friends — to keep a lookout.

Time since disappearance: 15+ hours

Miracles do happen

As night fell, our fears intensified. How long can an 80-year-old survive without food, water or rest? At 8.30 p.m., the landline rang. It was my father, incoherent but alive! Heart in mouth, I asked him where he was. Another man answered: “I am a police inspector in Palakkad.” My husband had, fortuitously enough, just reached Palakkad then. So he met the policeman.

My father, suitcase in hand, didn't recognise his son-in-law.

We owe my father's life to Shaji Philip of Palakkad. Shaji has a hardware store by the Palakkad-Coimbatore main road. Around 6.30 p.m. on January 13, he noticed an old man shuffling along, near-collapse. Shaji has a parent with AD and he recognised the signs. So he gave my father a cup of tea and called the cops. The police found an old visiting card in my father's shirt pocket. It had his name and address.

Time since disappearance: 17+ hours

My father refuses to wear an identifying tag, so when my ever-resourceful mother has to go out, she locks the gate. She also gets a security guard to keep an eye on the house, as an extra precaution.

Tracking dementia patients

The Alzheimer's Association of the United States (www.alz.org) says six out of 10 persons with dementia can simply disappear. Swapna Kishore, Bengaluru-based writer and dementia caregiver knows that. She has been caring for her now-bedridden mother for the past 13 years. In the early years, her mother wandered off, often.

How do you track a dementia patient? The Alzheimer's Association of the US has a 24-hour nationwide emergency service called MedicAlert + SafeReturn that carers (care homes) can enrol patients in. Various companies also offer wearable technology with GPS tracking devices; a GPS-enabled watch patients cannot remove, for example, or devices that can be embedded in shoes.

ARDSI notes in its Dementia India Report 2010 that India has just 10 dementia helplines: at Kochi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Bengaluru, New Delhi and Hyderabad. In Bengaluru, ARDSI Bengaluru and the Nightingales Medical Trust (NMT) run a helpline. NMT, through its Nightingales Centre for Ageing and Alzheimer's (NCAA), runs Nightingale Trace, a project where dementia patients wear a bracelet inscribed with his or her identification number and NCAA contact numbers.

What you can do

Sew tags (with the patient's name, age, medical condition, address, contact numbers) on his or her clothes, preferably by the nape of the neck

Inform neighbours, relatives, friends, even the plumber, electrician, house help, apartment security guard

Keep recent photographs handy

Never leave the patient alone anywhere or let the patient and carer travel unaccompanied

If put on a new medication, he or she may wander more

Get a trained caregiver to help

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