Dementia can make getting lost scarier

Barry County

ORANGEVILLE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Jim and Dora Boulter have been married for 60 years and have lived their whole lives in rural Barry County. 

The 77-year-old couple were playing Cribbage at a friend’s home on Christmas Eve in Plainwell, leaving around 10:30 p.m. The Plainwell home is about 15 minutes from the Boulter’s home in Orangeville Township. The couple played cards at their friend’s home every week. 

“They’re kind of off the grid,” Ron Bagley, the couple’s grandson told News 8 Thursday morning as he was following the trail of the elderly couple. “My grandfather suffers a bit from some dementia.” 

The couple did not bother with cell phones or even credit cards making their progress difficult to track. 

But they were driving a bright yellow Jeep which had been spotted heading north in places like Comstock Park. 

Finally, around noon Thursday, they were found in the area of Oceana County, a remote and seasonal area which is about 100 miles north. 

“A passerby who was out enjoying the weather happened to come across him walking to find gas and called the authorities,” Barry County Undersheriff Matthew Houchlei said.

The grandson said it appears the couple is physically fine. 

“He’s starting to get a little worse off with the dementia,” Bagley said.

Joy Spahn, the regional director of the Alzheimer’s Association West Michigan says this is not unusual with people suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia. 

“The brain cells are being damaged little by little over time and when that happens, they lose their connectivity,” Spahn said.  

It is estimated that about 60% of people with Alzheimer’s or dementia wander by foot or driving. 

“It interferes with the ability to recognize familiar things,” Spahn said. “They may see familiar objects, but the ability to take that information and translate it into ‘oh I need to turn here to go to my house’ starts to fail.” 

The ability to make good decisions on when to stop and when to ask for help, as well as the perception of time can be impacted. 

“So, that’s why you see folks losing their way or running stop signs or running traffic lights because they can see it but recognizing what that means starts to fail,” Spahn said, adding that people tend to get lost more often close to home rather than on long trips. 

The couple’s grandson said they never had an incident like this. 

“There has been a time or two where my grandfather may take a wrong turn and be missing for a couple of hours, but it was nothing like this,” Bagley said. 

“They might be a little bit delayed, but they eventually get back home, that should be a pretty good flag for a family member that things are changing,” Sphan said. 

Using a GPS or cell phone can be helpful early on, but as the diseases progress, it can mask the bigger problems. 

“It’s a very difficult conversation. We really encourage people to have that conversation sooner rather than later,” she said. 

Spahn says it is better to give up the license rather than having it taken away. 

That person on the road can be dangerous not to themselves but to others on the road. 

To find resources on how to approach this difficult topic, visit the Alzheimer’s Association’s website.

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