Video: Offering a lifeline to families

By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 9/15/2008 8:39:28 AM ET 2008-09-15T12:39:28

With the elderly making up the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, police and caregivers will have to spend ever-increasing time and money in coming years to keep tabs on older Americans with Alzheimer’s disease, lawmakers and advocates for the elderly warn.

The number of Americans living with Alzheimer’s is expected to triple by 2050 — to more than 16 million. About 60 percent of such patients wander away from their homes or care facilities at some point, according to the Alzheimer’s Association; about half of those who are not found within 24 hours suffer serious injury or even death.

Figures like that are spurring lawmakers to come up with ways to help police find senior citizens who have gone missing. One of the more prominent ideas, usually called Silver Alerts, piggybacks on the success of the Amber Alert program, which broadcasts media bulletins and posts lookout information on highway signs when a child is reported missing.

Lois Hogan, director of the North Carolina Center for Missing Persons, which instituted Silver Alerts last November, said many dementia patients “really don’t know where they’re going or how to protect themselves. It is usually a life-threatening situation. The faster we can find them, the better off it will be.”

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Of the nearly 40 alerts issued in North Carolina, all but four of the missing subjects were found alive, the Department of Crime Control and Public Safety said. The numbers are almost identical in Texas, where a similar program was also implemented last year.

“These programs have shown that with timely notification because a Silver Alert system is in place, the chances of the missing individual being found greatly increase,” said Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, who cared for his own father as he struggled through the final stages of Alzheimer’s.

Efforts to expand alerts quicken
Latham noted that few states have senior alert programs, however — only 11, with others considering them. That’s not enough, he said, pointing to the statistics on missing Alzheimer’s patients.

“That’s 3 million missing mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers. These people are our neighbors, our parents, our grandparents and our friends,” Latham said.

The House Judiciary Committee last week sent to the floor a bill sponsored by Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, which would establish a national Silver Alert communications network to coordinate search efforts and give grants to states to take part.

Police and policy-makers said they would welcome the help, saying that, in general, it is harder to find a missing senior citizen than it is to find a missing child.

“Many times they’ll be overlooked,” said John Legare, a spokesman for the state Office on Aging in South Carolina, where officials are examining proposals for a Silver Alert system after the disappearance last month of Barbara Brunson, 66, from her assisted-care facility in Sumter.

It was the fifth time Brunson, who remains missing, had disappeared. Even though doctors said she suffers from dementia and schizophrenia, there is no reason for anyone who may have seen her on the street to have suspected that anything was wrong, Legare said.

“When a child’s by themselves, it seems odd,” Legare said. But “when a senior is by themselves, they try to respect people’s privacy more than anything else.”

Radio bracelet cuts costs, time
That means police often get a late start on search efforts, which take on added urgency the longer a frail elderly person is missing, said Edward Rochford, sheriff of Morris County, N.J.

“It would take anywhere from seven to nine hours with maybe 40 to 60 rescue people out there looking for the person,” Rochford said.

New Jersey doesn’t have senior alerts, so the Morris County Sheriff’s Office is trying something different, joining more than 700 other local agencies in 43 states that take part in Project Lifesaver.

The program allows primary caregivers to outfit their elderly relatives with a radio transmitter worn on the wrist. When people are reported missing, one or two officers can usually track them within a few minutes.

Last week, Project Lifesaver recorded its 1,700th rescue, according to the nonprofit Project Lifesaver Foundation, which was established in Chesapeake, Va., in 1999.

Costs for Project Lifesaver vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction — Morris County charges $285 for the transmitter, plus about $15 a month for batteries and maintenance — and it covers only those people who are wearing the bracelet.

Silver Alerts, by contrast, can be issued for any missing senior citizen.

“The thought of establishing a Silver Alert network that would be nationwide would at least have the entire city, town, state looking for someone,” said Eric Hall, president of the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America. “Hopefully, [it] will be as successful as Amber Alert has been.”

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