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Maximizing the effectiveness of Police Scotland investigations when people living with dementia go missing

This research aims to explore the effectiveness of searches for people living with dementia who are reported as missing.

Key details

Lead institution
Principal researcher(s)
Alistair Shields
Police region
Level of research
Project start date
Date due for completion

Research context

In Scotland annually there are approximately 530 missing person incidents reported to the police for people living with dementia. These incidents are emotionally distressing for the families and caregivers who do not know the whereabouts of the reported person. For the person living with dementia the consequences of being missing worsen with the passage of time.

It has been suggested that when reported as missing the person travels toward a place orientated to their past. The knowledge of such locations to inform police investigations, when someone is reported as missing, is commonly not available.


For people living with dementia who are reported as missing to improve search effectiveness by better defining areas where police should search.


The objectives of these studies are:

  • to explore historical police data for missing events involving people living with dementia to identify any relationship between time, distance, and purposefulness of travel

  • to explore the experience of travel for someone living with dementia and how they perceive their travel through memory cues, topographic reference point, or emotive reactions

  • to explore with families and carers of someone living with dementia what knowledge can be ascertained regarding the intentions of their cared for person when they are travelling autonomously in differing circumstances and how travel may be prompted

  • to explore with police missing person investigators what information regarding intentionality of travel for a person living with dementia would be useful in directing police response should the person be reported as missing

Research methodology

The researcher will use a mixed methods approach to determine a proportionate search area and identify indications of purposes for travel which suggest intended objectives for travel by an individual living with dementia.

Utilising an anonymised abstract of Police Scotland missing person records these will be examined for time-period before someone is located, indications of travel intentions during this period, and whether the geographic nature of where they're missing from effects where they are found.

A number of descriptive statistical techniques will be used to suggest if the results are meaningful. The results of the analysis will contribute to identifying themes to be explored further, particularly memories, experience, and context which may give purpose and objectives to travel.

The next steps will be to conduct qualitative interviews, using visual elicitation techniques, to prompt memory and point of view of participants regarding travel. Interviews will be held with participants who will include individuals living with dementia, carers, and police about what are significant locations and travel activities for people living with dementia. Thematic analysis of images and transcripts will be undertaken to identify relationships and shared knowledge between participants.

The results of the two activities described above will be triangulated to highlight the nature of information to discuss with those receiving a dementia diagnosis to provide an individual’s lived experience to investigators in the event the person subsequently goes missing.

The usefulness of the identified information will be tested in an experiment using a police decision making exercise. Experienced investigators will provide feedback on the expected impact of the information and recommendations will be captured. These results will further refine the scope and scale of information to be captured.

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