Faye Miles, a vibrant woman who loved gardening, said she was going to run a quick errand, hopped in her truck, and headed toward the farmstand five minutes from her Wareham home.
Then, the 68-year-old retired teacher vanished. Hours later, in the middle of the night, police officers found Miles sitting in her truck, which had run out of gas on Interstate 495, miles from her home. She had no memory of what happened.
“I was lucky,” said Miles’s longtime companion, Barbara Meehan. “I was dealing with a Police Department that was wonderful. The moment I said ‘memory issues,’ they were on it.”
Now, a new state mandate requires all municipal police officers in Massachusetts to complete a course by June that teaches them about dementia, and offers proven methods for approaching and communicating with people who have the disease.
At least 120,000 people are living with dementia in Massachusetts, resulting in increasing reports of patients wandering away. That has tested officers and other emergency teams in ways they haven’t previously encountered.
The new training is part of 40 hours of continuing education that municipal police officers must complete every year.
The course was created by the Alzheimer’s Association of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, in collaboration with police officers, and was approved by the Municipal Police Training Committee, a state agency that establishes training standards for police statewide.
It is designed to deal with situations such as what befell Miles in 2008.
The heart-stopping episode crystallized for her companion how easily things could have gone worse. In the weeks before, Miles seemed confused about Christmas presents the couple received, and had been undergoing tests for early signs of dementia. But Miles had never wandered off or gotten lost while driving.
Ronda Randazzo, a clinical social worker and manager of education programs at the Alzheimer’s Association, knows well the complications that can arise from interactions between people with dementia and emergency workers.
“Someone with dementia could be seen as intoxicated, or noncompliant, and that may not be the case,” said Randazzo, who has already taught the course to dozens of officers. “It may be they are unsteady on their feet, or they can not process the information because of changes in their brain. It requires a sensitive response to decipher what’s going on.”
Randazzo points to a recent confrontation in California as a worst-case scenario involving a person with dementia who became restless at night — a common problem — and wandered.
In that Bakersfield case, a 73-year-old man in the early stages of dementia was killed by police after neighbors reported seeing a prowler with a revolver. The police fired several shots, after the man reportedly ignored their requests to remove his hands from his jacket.
It turns out, the unarmed grandfather was carrying a crucifix.
The course teaches officers to use simple, direct conversation.
The Massachusetts course teaches officers to use simple, direct conversation, and to avoid using emergency lights and sirens if possible, because they can easily upset or confuse a person with dementia. Police also learn that the disease can affect a person’s peripheral vision, so officers can avoid alarming a person by not approaching from the side, if the officer suspects the person may have dementia.
Melrose Police Chief Michael Lyle was among a group of officers several years ago who urged state officials to mandate better dementia training. Lyle, an officer for 30 years, had witnessed several cases that ended badly, including a person with dementia who was reported missing and whose lifeless body was later found in a parking lot.
Massachusetts passed a Silver Alert law in 2010, an emergency system police use to notify the public when someone with dementia goes missing. It is similar to the Amber Alert system used to recover abducted children.
But Melrose was one of several police departments that recognized more needed to be done. Those agencies have encouraged families who have members with dementia to fill out a form that details information about the person, and provide a recent photo, which police keep on file. That gives officers a head start, avoiding a scramble for information when someone is reported missing.
“It would be nice to have the upper hand, when it’s rainy, or snowy, or 20 degrees out, when minutes really mean something,” Lyle said.
While the state mandate for dementia training includes only police, the Alzheimer’s Association recently has received requests for training from other public safety agencies including the Boston Fire Department.
The Fire Department’s training, which is scheduled to begin in February, will teach roughly 1,500 people, said Captain Frederick Lorenz. The city’s EMTs began receiving training in November.
Fires can be especially confusing and traumatic for people suffering from cognitive impairments, prompting them to hide in a closet rather than leave a building, or to wander off during a chaotic evacuation, Lorenz said.
“It’s important how you handle the person so they don’t get aggressive, and they don’t back away from you,” Lorenz said.
Patricia McCormack, director of the City of Boston’s Alzheimer’s Initiative, which aims to make Boston safer and more inviting for those with the impairment, said an estimated 12,500 people are living with dementia in the city. As many as one-fourth of them are believed to be living alone.
McCormack said EMTs who recently received the Alzheimer’s Association training told her about a critical gap in dementia care for these residents. EMTs said they are repeatedly encountering some who have wandered off, are brought to a hospital for treatment, then returned to their empty homes.
“We are planning on bringing people together from various agencies to talk about how to deal with these folks, to fill these gaps,” McCormack said.