An ageing population is putting stress on the nation's emergency services, with one in five missing-person searches involving people with cognitive impairments.
Statistics showed 23 per cent of all land searches were for wanderers, including people living with conditions such as dementia-related illnesses, autism disorders and intellectual disabilities.
This number was expected to rise as the New Zealand population aged.
Senior Constable Garry Learmonth said there had been a growing number of callouts for elderly people since he joined the Auckland Search and Rescue squad 18 years ago.
"Back in the first days when I joined, most of our searches were people getting lost in the bush.
"But with GPS now, those bush searches are reducing, but because we have an ageing population, it's changed to the elderly going missing."
Alzheimers New Zealand principal adviser Jean Gilmour said an older population bought with it an increased risk of dementia.
It was predicted that by 2026 there would be 74,000 people with dementia-related illness in New Zealand, with that number expected to more than double by 2050.
"What happens with diseases like Alzheimer's is you can lose the stability to be orientated towards place, and the ability to way-find or navigate around," Gilmour said.
"My analogy is when you forget where your car is parked - for someone with dementia that is what they are living with, that feeling of suddenly feeling lost.
"That is when you run into problems with people who are unable to find their way home."
In the past two years, the Herald had reported on at least five major searches for missing people with cognitive impairments.
• John Kohi Mohi, 77, was last seen on February 11, 2019, when he did not return from his daily walk. His body was found five days later. The Maketū man had dementia.
• Raymond Stirling, 84, went missing on January 15, 2018. His body was found a month later. The Hamilton man had mild dementia.
• Nigel Peterson, 33, went missing on November 17, 2017, after he was moved by caregivers from his flat. He was in full-time care as he suffered from psychosis and autistic symptoms.
• Maree Wilkins, 85, went missing from an Auckland rest home where she was receiving care for dementia on November 7, 2017.
• Patricia Wearn, 73, disappeared without a trace from her home in Torbay on January 16, 2017.
Finding those who are lost:
Learmonth said generally when someone with a cognitive impairment went missing, searchers always checked the residence first.
"If they are in a rest home, one of the first things we do is check the village – because they could just be down the hallway.
"Then we would search all the high-risk areas, for example lakes or bush in the area, then we would continue spreading out from there and searching all the areas," he said.
Learmonth said each search averaged about four to seven hours, with about 10 people looking.
Another factor taken into mind when searching for someone with dementia was anywhere they had lived before, he said.
"Dementia and Alzheimer's patients do have a tendency to remember the past and there is quite a common theme for them to want to go home.
"We had an example of a lady from Parakai who always talked about her Dad and his boat. She went missing and two days later she was found in Picton, in the South Island.
"She was at Picton Marina trying to find her Dad's boat.
"When we did inquiries later on - on her desk in the rest home was a picture of her Dad and that boat at the Picton Marina, taken 40-50 years prior, so that is where she believed her Dad was and where she had to go.
"So we always ask for previous addresses, where they have been in the past – as that is one of the common things."
Tracking programme a 'huge time saver':
In order to combat increasing demand, the New Zealand Search and Rescue (NZSAR) Council, with key stakeholders, developed the Safer Walking Partnership Framework.
As part of this framework, LandSAR volunteers developed a tracking technology known as WanderSearch.
WanderSearch is a radio frequency tracking device for people who are at risk of going missing.
When a person goes missing, tracking equipment is used by police and volunteer search and rescue groups to find the person in the fastest way possible.
LandSAR national safer walking co-ordinator Clare Teague said the device was a little beacon, the size of a watch, that could be worn as a pendant, wrist device or belt clip.
"They give off a radio frequency signal every two seconds, so if the person goes missing, you give that frequency to police.
"They use a receiver and a directional aerial to listen to the beep at that frequency, and the closer you get to the pendant the louder the signal becomes.
"The people who do the searches are trained to find these signals and can quite quickly pick up on where that device is," she said.
Teague said the beacons were a huge time saver when it came to search and rescue missions.
"They can translate into the difference between a really poor outcome and finding someone too late, and actually finding someone quite quickly with no fuss or bother.
"It also means that families are a little bit more relaxed because they know if their family member goes off on a walk, they will be found.
"This makes it less likely that they will be put in a secure facility, and keeps people independent for longer."
Learmonth said a normal search for a person missing in an urban environment was seven or eight hours, but if they were wearing one of the devices it was less than an hour.
"Initially, before we had the pendants, if someone went missing it would be about pure manpower, lots of hours, feet on the ground, and probably an average of seven to 10 searchers searching from the last known point.
"When WanderSearch devices came on board, they cut the search time down to an average of an hour, with one to two people with a tracking device. So not only do we save manpower, we save time and money," he said.
"I believe we have saved the police hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years in man hours, just by having this programme.
"It is certainly a good aid and I know of a few people who have been found, that we probably wouldn't have found if it weren't for the tracking device."
Learmonth said that in the past week alone Auckland police had been called out to four missing people with WanderSearch pendants.
"Two of them we tracked with the device and located them, the other two were found by members of the public quite quickly," he said.
Gilmour said maintaining an individual's independence, while being safe, was a great thing to aim for.
"It is a good idea to talk to the person when they are diagnosed about location devices.
"It is better to wear it early on, before the person is likely to get lost, so they are used to wearing it," she said.
Gilmour's other pointers for keeping wanderers safe include developing regular walking routes, and keeping track of where that person normally walks; companion walking, or joining a walking group; and keeping a record of past addresses of where that person might be likely to go.
Gilmour also suggested making sure the person carried some form of identification, or a contact number for a carer which could be sewn into a jacket or handbag.
The NZ Police website urges people not to wait 24 hours if a person suffering from dementia goes missing - call 111 immediately to report the person missing.