More and more often Northland search and rescue teams are being called to help find people with dementia.
But an electronic tracking device worn by wanderers can cut search operations down to a matter of hours – rather than days.
New Zealand Land Search and Rescue (LandSAR) national safer walking coordinator Clare Teague said incidents where people with cognitive impairments – such as dementia, autism, intellectual disability – went "missing" were more common than once thought.
Alzheimers New Zealand reported almost 70,000 Kiwis are living with dementia today – a figure set to rise to 170,000 by 2050.
Recent data showed about 23 per cent of people with cognitive impairments living at home raised some level of concern of wandering.
About 2 per cent had wandered in the previous 12 months up to November 2020 – with five out of 10 repeat wanderers.
"We also know that time is critical in finding people with cognitive impairment alive and well ... people should not hesitate to call the police when they know the person has gone missing," Teague said.
Senior Sergeant Cliff Metcalfe, the head of Northland Police Search and Rescue, said they had seen a noticeable increase in searches for people with dementia over the past three to four years.
The latest was for 73-year-old Brian Bench who was found on Sunday after a four-day search but died shortly after.
Metcalfe said Northland's ageing population could be a contributing factor to the rise in callouts.
Information from the Northland District Health Board shows the region's population is ageing because the number and proportion of older age groups has increased while those of youth and children decreased due to the falling birth rate.
Metcalfe said people with dementia were extremely "goal focused" when they wandered but also "confused".
"We've had people tell us the person wouldn't go 50m down the road and we've found them 15km away."
That's why Northland search and rescuers were encouraging people with dementia or their families to use a tracking device called a Wandatrak.
The Wandatrak is a small pendant with its own frequency that emits a ping which can be detected with tracking devices over a large distance.
As the tracking unit gets closer to the pendant, the frequency becomes stronger.
Each Wandatrak has a unique code that police record on their computer system alongside extra information to speed any search.
In 2013 the first Wandatrak was issued in Northland. There are about 20 currently being used in Whangārei and 20 in the Far North.
"It cuts our search for those people down to a matter of hours as opposed to days. You could save that person's life with the investment into their safety," Metcalfe said.
The device was credited with saving the life of a 77-year-old man who wandered off a Hukerenui farm late at night in thick fog and with temperatures below 10C in 2017.
Searchers were able to locate the man, who suffered from Alzheimer's disease, one-and-a-half hours later lying in a paddock, just off a farm track.
Northland LandSAR adviser Grant Conaghan said it was better to introduce people to the idea of a Wandatrak sooner rather than later.
"The person wearing it has to be fully on board. We tend to find people take them off or throw them away because they've been asked to wear them at a later stage of their dementia."
The Wandatrak devices are not funded by the government and the WanderSearch group distributing the pendants in Northland relies on donations to provide the devices.
The only cost associated to the pendants – worth $250 – was a $50 fee every six months to replace the battery.
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For more information and technologies to keep loved ones safe, people can visit: www.saferwalking.nz.