More than half a million people in Canada live with dementia. About 60 per cent of them will wander away at some point and possibly become lost -- a life-threatening situation, especially during winter and in rural areas.

It’s a staggering reality for many families, including the relatives of 89-year-old James Pearson, who has been missing for more than a week.

Pearson’s daughter, Margaret Lam, and others have been searching for him in the Toronto area without success.

Pearson, who has memory loss and “some dementia,” was last seen at his Whitby, Ont. apartment on Jan. 13.  Police have released photos of Pearson and have been combing area parks and the nearby shores of Lake Ontario in hopes of finding the man. 

“My hope is that possibly he has gone outside of the area, maybe on a bus, maybe on a train,” Lam said.

The family has said that Pearson was familiar with using the GO Transit system and may have taken a train to Toronto.  

“I don't know if we are going to find him alive,” a tearful Lam told CTV News.

Across the country, many families face a similar crisis. Mary Schulz, the director of education at the Alzheimer Society of Canada, said they “have to plan for these situations.”

Some families are turning to high-tech solutions such as tracking phones and wristwatches, or shoe insoles with GPS, in order to keep tabs on relatives with dementia.

But it can often be tough to decide when someone in cognitive decline needs to be monitored.

People with early stage memory loss and dementia want to keep their independence, but those who treat people with Alzheimer’s say it's better to be prepared.

The Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health, for example, has a summary of how GPS locator devices for people with dementia work.

The Alzheimer’s Association in the U.S. tells families to be on the lookout for some of the following warning signs from someone who has early memory loss:

  • Returns from a regular walk or drive later than usual
  • Forgets how to get to familiar places.
  • Talks about fulfilling former obligations, such as going to work
  • Tries or wants to "go home," even when at home
  • Acts nervous or anxious in crowded areas, such as shopping malls or restaurants.

The Alzheimer Society of Canada has also issued helpful guides for people living with dementia and their families on how to prevent disorientation and getting lost.

The organization offers tips suggested by people living with dementia. These include:

  • Taking the same walking routes at the same time of day to build familiarity, and help others gauge if the individual living with dementia has been gone longer than expected
  • Sharing relevant information about an individual’s condition with neighbours so they can help with directions
  • Using memory aids, such as a home phone number taped to the back of a cell phone, or a notebook to record directions
  • Avoiding the outdoors during bad weather or cold

The society also promotes the Medic Alert Safely Home program, which uses bracelets to identify people with dementia and contact families, as well as emergency services, when someone is found wandering. The program costs $60 per year.

Project Lifesaver, a search-and-rescue program for “at risk” individuals, is also available in parts of Canada. Those enrolled in the project wear a small transmitter on their wrist on ankle that emits a signal when the person is lost. The devices can cost about $500, plus a monthly fee.

British Columbia has a volunteer-run Silver Alert program, which goes into effect whenever a senior, someone with Alzheimer’s disease, or dementia goes missing.

The program is run in part by Michael Coyle, who believes that all provinces should adopt the Silver Alert system.

"A missing person with dementia is an emergency and it needs to be treated as such,” he said.

Manitoba went a step further and is getting closer to legislating a province-wide Silver Alert system, which has yet to become law.

With a report from CTV’s medical affairs specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip