Public urged to watch out for dementia patients

Dementia is a rapidly growing public health problem with hundreds of people with the disease going missing each year.

Figures show it prompts 150 Land Search and Rescue (LandSAR) callouts each year, and members of the public are being urged to help.

When former rugby league coach Mike McClennan went missing last year it prompted a public plea for help from his family.

He'd become lost after walking out of his Orewa rest home and his body was discovered a week later in thick bush.

His granddaughter says it was a terribly emotional time.

"[You're] extremely worried and also confused. Where do you even look? Where do you go? You're heartbroken. You think about if they're alone and how they're feeling," Katie McClennan says.

The number of official searches for people with dementia is nearly four times higher than that for missing children. On average, there are around 150 a year, which is around a quarter of all LandSAR searches. The number of police call-outs is even higher.

"It's very crucial that people with dementia and other cognitive impairments are found quickly. They can have frail health and are unaware of other environmental hazards such as drains and cliffs and waterways," says LandSAR National Safer Walking Coordinator Clare Teague.

Research suggests if they're not found within 24 hours there's a 25 percent fatality rate.

"If you see a person and something's a little bit off, don't be shy about approaching them and asking them, is everything ok. The worst that can happen is they say, 'I'm fine'," says Paul Sullivan, CEO of Dementia NZ.

So what are the signs to look out for? Often they're elderly and they may look distressed, appear lost and alone. They may even be wearing an identity bracelet.

Keeping an eye out could help save a life.

"It never hurts to check. It could save a family from heartbreak," McClennan says.

She now wears her grandfather's bracelet with pride.