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How to help a stranger who seems lost and confused

Here's what you can do if you meet a member of the public in need of help that you believe has dementia or memory problems. There are ways to assist the police in the event that someone who is vulnerable goes missing.

We have all experienced a stranger in the street approaching to ask for directions – it's a common daily occurrence. However, what happens if the person looks or seems confused, and tells you they can’t remember where they were heading?

Northumbria Police shared a video showing a social experiment taking place in Newcastle City Centre:

For the experiment, an undercover actor approached people in the street, asking for help as he wasn’t sure where he was.

Hidden cameras nearby captured the heartwarming moments people stopped to assist him. There were also many moments where the man was ignored with people walking by, not wanting to step in.

This is a form of stigma – members of the public were being reluctant to help someone who shows signs of dementia, as they don’t understand the condition or want to get involved. 

Why people with dementia may walk about or get lost

There can be a number of reasons why a person living with dementia walks about:

  • They could be continuing a habit, relieving boredom, or using up extra energy. 
  • Walking can relieve pain or discomfort and can be a distraction if they’re having problems sleeping or are feeling anxious. 
  • They may feel lost in their current environment, want to revisit a familiar place, or are seeking fulfillment. 

Whatever the reason for their walking about, they may become lost or disorientated because of it.

If you think you have come across someone in the street you believe has dementia or another condition that causes confusion, there are things you can do to help return them to safety. 

How to approach a person who seems lost or confused

When approaching someone you believe is living with dementia and needs help, consider the following: 

  1. Get close enough that you’re able to hear each other and make eye contact, but not so close that you’re in their personal space or are making them feel uncomfortable. 
  2. Make sure your body language is relaxed and open. 
  3. Speak calmly and slowly. Take your time to explain and listen to their answers. 
  4. Use short, simple sentences and avoid complicated questions. Use simple language and ask one question at a time. 
  5. If the person doesn’t understand what you’re saying, rephrase rather than repeat the sentence. Using non-verbal communication – like pointing in a certain direction – can help make things clearer and easier to understand. 

Stay with them if possible and try to help them stay calm. Reassure them as many times as necessary that you’re there to help – by building trust, you may be able to find out more information from them.

Contact the police as soon as possible to report that you believe you’ve found a vulnerable person.

It might help to wait with them in a café, shop or other public place so they feel safe. 

What can carers do to help people who walk about?

The Herbert Protocol is a national scheme that encourages those living with dementia, or those caring for them, to compile useful information that could be used in the event that they go missing.

The initiative is named after George Herbert, a war veteran, who had dementia. George Herbert died whilst 'missing', trying to find his childhood home.

Once the pack of information is complete, the carer keeps it in a safe place, ready to hand to the police when needed. Having it readily available can reduce the amount of time it takes to find the person and return them to safety.

A completed Herbert Protocol information pack includes: 

  • Vitals – name, current address, telephone number(s) 
  • A physical description of the person, including an accurate, up-to-date photograph 
  • Medical history, including their dementia diagnosis 
  • Life history – previous job roles, hobbies, likely places they may visit 
  • Carer and family information 
  • Missing now – when and where they were last seen, what they were wearing 
Get free Helpcards

Helpcards are for people with memory problems and dementia to carry with them. Using a Helpcard can make it easier to get help or assistance when out in the community. Helpcards are the size of a credit card and are free to order.

Order now
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An older gentleman w early dementia was dropped off w his little dog at our RV park aprox 3mos ago and I took it upon myself to help him. I put him into a hotel the last two months and have been acting as his caregiver by checking on him everyday and making sure that he has his meds and food and company. I'm trying to find him a permanent home but the more I work w him the more I realize that he can't live on his own . My husband and I thought that maybe we could get a home w him and I could become his permanent caregiver. However I'm finding that his temper and anger is just too much for me to deal with. I need some real advice as to what is best for him

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Hi Michelle, thanks for getting in touch.

If you're based in the UK, the best place to receive dementia information specific to your situation is the Dementia Connect support line. Call on 0333 150 3456 to speak to one of our dementia advisers - they can offer information and support. More details about the support line (including opening hours) are available here: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/dementia-connect-support-line

If you're based in the US, please contact the Alzheimer's Association helpline: https://www.alz.org/help-support/resources/helpline

Or if you're based in Canada, please contact the Alzheimer's Society of Canada helpline: https://alzheimer.ca/en/about-us

We hope this helps, Michelle.

Alzheimer's Society blog team

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A older man, maybe mid 80s, flagged me down tonight in my residential neighborhood. He was driving and lost and wanted help getting home. He seemed very disoriented but did give an address nearly an hour away. We printed directions in very large font for him, but it didnt seem like he could process them. He didnt know why he was where he was. He said he lived with his wife and we got his home phone and called police. The police arrived and did nothing more than give him verbal directions to the general area of the address he gave. "Turn south on xxx, then right on xxx then west....". He could not immediately repeat the directions past the first 3 turns. Second officer arrived and I told him I didnt think he could follow the directions of the first officer. But to no avail. They refused to escort him home. Understandable as it was the hour away. They did not call his wife. They escorted him to the end of town and left him on his own for the remaining 50 minutes and turns of his trip. Seems like there should be a protocol when encountering possibly dementia sufferers who are lost. It was very sobering to see the lack of real help he received. What is the protocol????

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We managed to return an elderly gentleman home tonight who had dementia. Found him in our local park at 2am when we were walking the dogs. The home didn’t even know he was gone but we walked round to the closest ones knocking on doors. He was a lovely gent. I work for the ambulance service so we wouldn’t have left him. NEAS & Northumbria police both logging safeguarding reports

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This evening ayt 9pm I walked past a man stood outside a garage, something inside me said "is that man OK", I asked him and he was fine, beaming back at me, in his 60's probably; reminded me of my Grandad, with a sparkle in his eye; he told me he used to run an old printers that used to be up the road, that I recall vaguely as a child, I am 47... He went on to ask me "if it was Friday and if it was 8 o clock or 9 o clock..." I assured him it was Tuesday and checked on my phone at 9pm... I imagine he wanted 9am, but fact he thought it was Friday made me think he was somewhat confused; he said a couple more things about dinnertimes and bin men, etc - maybe the disruption of bin change days had been a catalyst?, We had a really nice chat. I did worry as I walked off but he seemed happy and healthy and warm enough, wearing a bright green coat. Upon returning home he was on my mind as I hoped he got home OK, so I posted on my local facebook group about the experience in case anyone locally was aware of the man. Blessed be folks. In retrospect maybe I should have tried and phoned a taxi for him? A national network should be setup; put me on the list to volunteer if such a thing ever happens as supporting these people back to safety is the humane and right thing to do.

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GOOD MORNING.....RHIS HAPPENED TO MY GREAT AUNT TEE, WHO WAS IN HER LATE EIGHTIES....WONDERING AROUND AND A LADY TOOK TO OUR HOUSE.....I GAVE HER A BATH AND GAVE HER BREAKFAST, THEN PUT HER IN THE BATH TUB AND THEN FED HER!!!!! THAT WAS SOOOOO HARD FOR ME....THAT WAS MY MOTHER’S, MOTHER SISTER!!! I KNOW HOW YOU GUYS FEEL!!!!! TAKE CARE OF YOUR LOOOOOVED ONES????? “THE BIBLE SAYS....NOOOOOOO MAN KNOWS THE DAY THE TIME NOR THE HOUR.....WHEN THE MAN COMETH!!!!!!!!! LOOOOOOOVE YOUR FAMILY AS MUCH AS YOU CAN💋💕💕💕💕💕💕💕📖 EAT THE WORD......EVERYDAY!!!!!!!!!! AND, CONTINUE TO SHARE EVERY SECOND OF THE DAY!!!!!!!!!

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I've lived in the village I'm in for nearly a year, and have on at least 10 occasions been asked for directions to a street not far from my home by the same lady. I'm concerned that the lady asking may have some kind of dementia, but other than helping her find the street she's asked about I'm not overly sure how to help. Amy advice is much appreciated, I'd hate for something to happen to her.

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H Lauren,

Thanks very much for getting in touch.

It can be difficult to advise on a situation like this without a bit more information, but I've included some suggestions here for you.

The best option may be to call our Dementia Connect support line, as with more information one of our Advisers should be able to make some suggestions about how best to help. You can call on 0333 150 3456, and find more details here: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/dementia-connect-support-line

Depending on the size of the village, it’s possible that a local business may know this lady and be able to put your mind at rest or get in touch with her, or get in touch with her family to let them know she may need support. Similarly, they may be able to get in touch with the lady’s GP to let them know she often seems to get lost while walking.

If this isn't possible and you're concerned about this lady’s safety, then it is absolutely fine to call the non-emergency police line (101) or speak to the local police station. If the lady is often in the same area around the same time, then the local police may be able to look out for her and approach her to assess the situation.

Hope this is helpful, Lauren.

Alzheimer's Society blog team

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I met a confused not elderly but not homeless person today. You could talk with them but they didn't knew where they came from and other things. I couldn't stay with that person because of various reasons. If I could have I would have stayed. I called the police and they told me that people like that exist and as long as the person os not doing anything they won't come. It was horrible.

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My mother has dementia and lived on her own until she was 92 years old. She would go out at night and we began to get calls from neighbours and the police. They suggested mum wore a GPS device which I think is an excellent idea when someone goes missing. She has now been in a home for 2 years and seems happy and well cared for but I miss her terribly.

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I have suggested having a designated 'Meeting Point' (as in airports),for anyone likely to be confused (any age), in our local municipal building which houses the public library.Plans are being made for this.

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I often take a out a gentleman friend with Alzheimer’s who has a very jovial disposition, and who looks and talks just like anyone else, but recently he is beginning to make inappropriate comments when we are out and about. This can sometimes be embarrassing and not many people realise that he has Alzheimer’s and make allowances. If we had a lanyard (like the Autism Society), maybe with forget-me-nots rather than sunflowers this would enable people to understand that he is not being rude or disparaging but just making what he believes to be a joke. So come on Alzheimer’s this could make a massive difference to many people!!

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There are many buttons, brooches and other jewellery items featuring forget me nots available on Amazon And elsewhere for easy identification of dementia sufferers as well as lanyards. They are inexpensive, tactical and attractive. Hope this helps

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My mum lives with vascular dementia. My sisters and I have watched a proud powerful woman be reduced to a not knowing who we are or where she is. Christmas Eve she decided to go back home at 12 midnight. She left her home of 20 years and headed down the A5 in slippers to go back to the house we grew up in. Thank god an off duty police man spotted her whilst he was driving home and kept her safe and warm and called his colleagues, got an interpreter and made contact with us. Me and my sister have not left her alone at night since. The policeman came back to see my sister and told us about the Herbert Protocol and we have her on the data base. It’s hard and those glimpses of mum are all but gone but we care for her always.

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I attend my local Church and it has now become Dementia Friendly. We have made obvious alterations to make it safe for anyone with Dementia visiting the Church. I am the Coordinator and hope to invite anyone with Dementia to visit. My own Mother had Dementia and her Brother has it now. I like to help people as much as I can.

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If I see someone struggling to reach something on a shop shelf, distressed or looking confused, I always stop to offer help, no matter if I am in a hurry. Usually, it is older people and they deserve our respect and our help. Remember, that person is somebody's mother or father, daughter or son and one day that person could be me. Let's try to make this world a better place, one step at a time.

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Thank you to all the wonderful people who check to see if a vulnerable person needs help. My father has dementia and it's painful to watch. He was strong, meticulous and a proud man. This awful disease is taking away my dad and I feel so helpless. I'm grateful for organisations such as this trying to help and give much needed information to understand this awful condition.

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I read all the helpful tips and found them very useful
I have a very close friend with dementia and very painful to watch their deterioration
Hope there will one day be more caring people either in the home or on the streets who will just smile and care

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I watched my mother go from 160lbs..5'8" ,to 90lbs...The home put food in front of her, but she was unable to eat or did not realize she should eat, nor did she receive any help to eat. I was working, had a family...I told the home, my mother is starving to death...the next evening after I got home from work, I went to see my mother, she was sitting at a table with it loaded with food, enough for 10 or more people. The home was trying to say, your mom gets food she is not eating, what a disgusting scene. She needed help, she was in an assisted living home, they assisted her right into her grave..total negligence. She was not ill, physically, just mental..No cancer, no heart trouble. Her death certificate said "severe anemia", she starved to death..$2500.00 plus a month.. these senior homes need to be held accountable when a patient dies of starvation...when youthful aids are running around acting like they are working...I saw many people starving..yes I have my regrets, that was not there, but I to had a family, I to had a job, but my job was not to feed elderly, I was not employed there, but I hope in my heart, I would treat those humble people different. Those in the home will one day walk in their shoes...Vengeance is Mine , I will repay saith the Lord. You reap what you sew...If you work in a home, for goodness sakes, do your job, take care of people, FEED THEM....they need that more then anything.....they die of starvation....

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