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Police Arrest More Seniors, Lack Training on Dementia

As the U.S. population ages and more people develop dementia, older people are increasingly running into problems with the police, according to The Marshall Project. Any use of force or arrest can be devastating for someone who is already physically and mentally fragile. While many cities are changing how they respond to mental health calls — including whether police should be present — less attention has been paid to the unique risks in cases involving people with Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases. There’s no national count of how many people with dementia are arrested each year. An analysis of U.S. crime data shows that arrests of people over 65 grew by nearly 30 percent between 2000 and 2020. The number of elder arrests is growing faster than the population is aging. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that from 2010 to 2020, over 12,000 people 65 and older ended up in a hospital emergency room for injuries caused by police or private security.

Police often are called to track down people who have gotten lost, arrest confused shoplifters, or intervene in domestic disputes. Many officers lack adequate trainingmay not have adequate training on dementia. Some older people can pose a real threat, regardless of age or cognition. Interactions with police can escalate simply because someone is confused or can’t follow an officer’s instructions. Dementia and Alzheimer’s can make it difficult for people to communicate. That confusion can seem aggressive if the person is overwhelmed or afraid. “Even handcuffing a person with dementia could be extremely traumatic,” said Eilon Caspi, a gerontologist and dementia behavior specialist at the University of Connecticut. From transport in a police cruiser to interrogation to jailing, any part of an arrest “could really be a terror,” he said. The best practices for dealing with dementia patients — staying calm, patient, and flexible — may conflict with officers’ need for compliance when making an arrest, experts say. “We know what works best is to talk slowly and calmly, ask simple questions, don’t argue with the person,” said Monica Moreno of the Alzheimer’s Association. Along with the U.S. Justice Department, the association has provided online training for over 31,000 emergency responders on how to recognize and respond to people with the disease. “The techniques are drastically different from what [officers] may be learning in their everyday training,” she said.

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