A person is reported missing in the UK every two minutes. Many are older people living with dementia. To passers-by, they may not appear to be in distress and are unlikely to attract attention. But statistically, as Reported Missing (BBC One) grimly informed us, if a person with dementia is not found within 24 hours, the likelihood is that they will be found dead.
This excellent documentary series following missing persons cases from first report to conclusion has, in the past, given us tragic endings. An episode from 2018 has stayed with me: a 77-year-old woman became lost after taking the bus to a GP appointment and was found dead in a remote area days later, having wandered far off course in her confusion and succumbing to the elements.
So it was agonising to watch the two stories unfold in last night’s programme, with the real threat that they would not be found alive. Sheila, 82, vanished while on a shopping trip with her husband. He turned his back for a moment in the greengrocer’s and she was gone. Her Alzheimer’s was so advanced that she was unable to hold a conversation or find her way home. John, 79, went missing from his home when his wife went out to meet a friend. The condition had robbed him of his confidence and he relied on her for everything.
Gloucestershire Police did admirable work, scouring CCTV and following up every sighting. As the hours ticked by, it became almost unbearably tense. Mercifully, both were found safe and well: Sheila several miles away in Cheltenham, after a well-meaning bus driver let her board without a ticket; John in a field close to a railway line.
The real story here, though, was the terrible toll that dementia takes not just on those diagnosed, but on their loved ones. John’s wife spoke with a sad resignation as she described his decline, having been an executive with British Aerospace during the Concorde era. Sheila’s husband, also called John, who had done so well to keep caring for her, had tears in his eyes as he described their 62 years together. “She’s always been the love of my life,” he said simply. A heart-rending programme, about a condition that will affect many of us.