As dangerously cold temperatures continue to grip the region, senior care experts and authorities are urging caretakers and families to closely monitor their elderly loved ones after two Metro Detroit women with dementia wandered from their homes this week and froze to death.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association Greater Michigan Chapter, a person with any stage of dementia should not be left alone as temperatures drop to single digits. Wandering is the leading concern for dementia patients, said Kristin Rossi, vice president of development for the chapter.
“Every year, we hear of a case like this, and it’s so, so sad,” Rossi said. “It is 100 percent preventable.”
In the first incident, a 96-year-old Roseville woman was found frozen to death Tuesday on an elementary school playground. She was wearing a nightgown, robe and slippers. Authorities say she had recently been diagnosed with dementia and there were no signs of foul play.
A 65-year-old Shelby Township woman with dementia and mental illness walked away from her home in the 25 Mile and Shelby Road area Wednesday night. Police later found her on the Macomb Orchard Bike Path near 24 Mile and Dequindre, a couple miles away from her home. Officers tried to revive her, but she had already succumbed to the cold.
Their deaths come days after the body of Dwayne Johnson, whom Detroit police also believe froze to death, was found Monday in front of Shady Grove Missionary Baptist Church on the city’s east side. His circumstances were unknown.
Macomb County Sheriff Anthony Wickersham said while these incidents are rare, people should be continuously calling and stopping by to check on seniors with dementia who live alone.
“If they are living alone and have a touch of dementia or Alzheimer’s, maybe bring them to your house and keep an eye on them until these conditions get better,” Wickersham said.
Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, which impacts a person’s memory and judgment.
On Friday and Saturday, the highs are expected to reach only the mid to upper single digits, with lows expected around minus 4 degrees, according to the National Weather Service in White Lake Township.
“With wind chills near negative 15 degrees, frostbite can set in in about 30 minutes if not properly dressed,” said Alex Manion, a meteorologist with the weather service. “Those that live in Michigan know the drill. Covering up extremities, wearing multiple layers are vital to protecting yourself.
“This theme is going to continue through the end of the week.”
A warmup is expected Sunday with a high near 30, which is the average temperature in Metro Detroit for early January.
Experts say elderly people with dementia are often not sensitive to the dangerously cold temperatures. They get outside in the cold, become confused and don’t know it’s time to take shelter, said Brianna LoPiccolo, a care counselor for the Alzheimer’s Association.
It’s also important for families and caretakers to identify times of the day when dementia patients wander and plan activities for them, Rossi said.
She recommended adult day centers located across the region that keep seniors entertained during the day.
Other home tips from Rossi: keep the heat at 68 degrees or higher; ensure seniors have warm nightwear; stock the refrigerator so they have no reason to leave; and put child safety locks on the doors.
Local senior care facilities are taking extra precautions to protect dementia patients during these extreme days.
Lijon Antony, owner of Walnut Creek Living in Macomb Township, said he has security measures in place, such as door and window alarms and surveillance cameras to monitor patients. Antony said it’s also important to make sure his staff is able to monitor every patient at all times.
Walnut Creek is a group home that owns four houses with six residents in each one. Two people staff each house.
“If I can’t handle the person, I don’t admit them,” Antony said. “We make sure where they are staying is secure.”
Antony said he ensures his residents are comfortable, windows are sealed and room temperatures are warm enough during cold months.
People with dementia often deal with confusion that leads them to go outside or expect things to happen at certain times, he said.
“They go back in the early stages of life and want to get their dog inside,” Antony said.
Nina Hardiewich, principal of Browning Elementary School in Sterling Heights, placed her husband Walt, 60, in Walnut Creek Living in October after he was diagnosed with dementia.
“I don’t have to worry when he’s here. They are very mindful, and I’ve been all over, and you can’t find a nicer place where they monitor 24/7,” said Nina Hardiewich, 55.
Walt Hardiewich is one of the younger patients in the group home, with some as old as 102.
Walt said “they make a home away from home for us and keep us warm.”
Joyce Stallings, director of Visiting Angels of Detroit, a network of senior home care services, said families should get tracking devices for their elderly loved ones with dementia that allows them to push a button in an emergency situation.
However, Stallings said it’s better to have someone monitoring dementia patients, or at least have a neighbor or police officer checking in on them.
“You have to make phone calls,” Stallings said. “You really have to keep eyes and ears on a person who is living alone with dementia.”
Staff Writer Sarah Rahal contributed.