Lili Liu receives funding for dementia search-and-rescue initiative

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Dean Lili Liu at podium with Minister Bill Blair beside her

Delays in finding people with dementia who go missing can result in tragic outcomes

Sixty percent of people living with dementia go missing at least once, and among them, some will get lost repeatedly. In Indigenous communities, the rates of dementia are disproportionately higher than in the general Canadian population.

That is why the federal government has announced $2.1 million in funding over three years for a search-and-rescue project led by Lili Liu, Waterloo public health researcher and Dean of the Faculty of Health. Called Managing Risks of Going Missing among Persons Living with Dementia by Building Capacities of SAR Personnel, First Responders and Communities, the project will build capacity within the search-and-rescue community and with care partners to work with this population, build partnerships and increase coordination. It builds on the research Liu’s team has conducted over the past since 2015 through the AGE-WELL Network of Centres of Excellence program.

“The increasing number of Canadians living with dementia at risk of going missing is a public health concern,” said Liu. “We will build on existing expertise and partnerships to scale up strategies that enhance training, improve data collection, coordinate community resources and prevent repeat missing incidents.”

Liu noted that if a missing person with Alzheimer’s disease is not found within 24 hours, there is a 50 per cent chance that they will be found injured or dead from hypothermia, dehydration or drowning, making any search an emergency.

“Also, there is a myth that persons with dementia go missing only from their homes and that they are safe if secured in a monitored environment like a care facility,” Liu said. “But fewer than half of missing incidents occur at home, with 20 per cent from care facilities, 11 per cent from hospitals, and 22 per cent from the street, open or other spaces. Indigenous populations are under- or not represented in these statistics.”

In fact, much of the available data on missing persons with dementia is from the United States, so the project will involve data collection approaches to monitor the issue in Canada where climate, geography, funding and culture differ.

Minister of Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair was on campus to talk about the issue and the Search and Rescue New Initiatives Fund, which is designed to enhance the effectiveness, efficiency, economy and innovation of search and rescue in Canada.

“Our mandate is to keep Canadians safe from a range of risks,” Blair said. “Our population is aging and along with it, the number of people who go missing due to dementia is increasing. Our partnership with the University of Waterloo through the Search and Rescue New Initiatives Fund is a significant step in helping these vulnerable members of our communities get to safety."

Among other initiatives, the project’s researchers will collaborate with partners to implement and evaluate dementia-friendly resources for first responders in six provinces beyond Ontario, including two Indigenous communities (Peguis First Nation in Manitoba and Kahnawá:ke Mohawk Territory in Quebec), to collect data to assess the issue in Canada, and to create a guideline to help prevent reoccurrence of missing person incidents.