What Law Enforcement Needs to Know About Dementia

As people age and our population becomes older, law enforcement officers will encounter more and more people living with dementia. They will need to have a basic understanding of dementia, how to recognize the signs of dementia, and how to communicate effectively with a person living with dementia, in order to have safe resolutions for all involved.

The first fact to recognize is that dementia is more than memory loss. Dementia affects parts of the brain that also control behavior, personality, judgement, reasoning, ability to perform normal tasks and communication. As a result, a variety of situations can occur where the person with dementia may do something they wouldn’t otherwise do. Without the right understanding and recognition that the person has dementia, situations can quickly escalate, or be dealt with inappropriately. The person may even be deemed “a criminal” when that is definitely not the case.

Situations where law enforcement officers may encounter a person living with dementia include:

  • Incidents of wandering or getting lost.

  • Reports of shoplifting.

  • Reports of indecent exposure.

  • Car accidents.

  • Reports of erratic driving.

  • The person is disturbing the peace.

  • Medical emergencies.

  • Fires or floods.

  • Reports of public intoxication.

  • The person with dementia phones 911 to report “strangers” in the house or theft of their belongings.

With an understanding of how dementia affects the brain, there are certain clues you can look for to determine if the person may in fact have dementia.

These include:

  • The person appears confused.

  • They’re not aware that they’re lost.

  • They are dressed inappropriately for the weather.

  • They’re not able to answer your questions.

  • They can’t tell you where they are or where they want to go.

  • They seem very anxious, irritated or afraid.

  • They can’t sort out the situation.

  • They repeat themselves.

Communication skills that are helpful when dealing with a person who has dementia:

  • Approach from the front and make eye contact.

  • Move slowly.

  • Use the person’s name.

  • Say your name.

  • Appear friendly and calm.

  • Speak in short sentences.

  • Give one piece of information or instruction at a time.

  • Ask ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions.

  • Wait for a response.

People living with dementia are still contributing members of society and have a right to be active within their communities. It helps them to continue to live active lives, especially early in the disease, when other people within the community have a basic understanding of the condition. Law enforcement officers have a responsibility to understand how dementia may affect a person’s behavior, and their ability to communicate and interact with others so that they can resolve emergencies as well as de-escalate situations that can occur in everyday life.

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