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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. 

Walking about

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 the person

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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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.

This is helpful

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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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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Hi. my wife has dementia.most days i find things in the waist bin , if i ask for a spoon. or a knife . most of the time she will hand me a rolling pin, she is now in stage three, thing are difficult. she is now 78 and myself 80

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I alarmed the house at night but my husband has started to wander the neighborhood during the day, I have alerted the neighbors and also ordered "dog tags" with his name, mine, diagnosis and my phone number on it that he wears all the time. They were very reasonable online.

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Excellent information. Thank you.

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I have two friends, both in the same home, suffering from Dementia.
My husband and I visit on a regular basis. The gent is very concerned seeing his wife who was always stronger that he, but now is far worse than he is. Not having seen them for 2 weeks, I am shocked to see how she has deteriorated. It makes me realise how quickly this disease can be all consuming. I think the suggested card will be very useful. Thank you for the work you do.

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Hi I brought a badge with,please be patient with me I have dementia. I thought it was a bit demining but it works a treat.

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interested in terry dean advice brilant it exsplains so well that the person has dementia so often people say thats unkind etc but some times it needs to be clear for folks to understand and then help the person as a society we so caught up with being politically correct my late husband had dementia which lead to alzheimers well done terry dean

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May Dad died of dementia and my father in law now lives with it. I always try and help, but struggle when that person doesn't want help and becomes aggressive (as is often the way with dementia sufferers). There is an elderly man in our town, which frequently wanders the streets . He is often picking up litter (or rather throwing it out of his way) or rummaging in the dirt. He could have dementia or other mental health issues, it is difficult to tell. But when I try and approach him or strike up a conversation he shouts and becomes a little intimidating. What is the best approach in this circumstance? I assume the police are aware as he is a regular sight. But then people often chose not to see.

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I thank you for this advice. At 74 years of age, I am thankful that, so far, I do not have any obvious signs of dementia. However, I do forget things and, often, do silly things such as going to the oven to put the milk in the fridge! My understanding of dementia is that it is not funny and I will do whatever I can to help anybody in distress when I am out.

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