For generations, the prototypical search-and-rescue case in America was Timmy in the well, with Lassie barking insistently to summon help. Lost children and adolescents - from the woods to the mall - generally outnumbered all others.
But last year for the first time, another type of search crossed into first place in Virginia, marking a profound demographic shift that public safety officials say will increasingly define the future as the nation ages: wandering, confused dementia patients like Freda Machett.
Ms. Machett, 60, suffers from a form of dementia that attacks the brain like Alzheimer's disease, and imposes on many of its victims a restless urge to head out the door. Their journeys, shrouded in a fog of confusion and fragmented memory, are often dangerous and not infrequently fatal. About 6 in 10 dementia victim will wander at least once, health care statistics show, and the numbers are growing worldwide, fueld primarily by Alzheimer's disease, which has no cure and affects about half of all people over 85.