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Education key to safeguarding rural residents with dementia

Natalie St. John

Published on November 8, 2017 7:40AM

The Silver Alert program is more useful for finding missing senior citizens in urban areas, where signs can reach many motorists, than in rural areas like ours.

Florida Department of Elder Affairs

The Silver Alert program is more useful for finding missing senior citizens in urban areas, where signs can reach many motorists, than in rural areas like ours.

OCEAN PARK — The recent disappearance and death of Audrey Davis, an 87-year-old Ocean Park resident with dementia, led many locals to wonder how the tragedy could have been prevented. On social media and in emails to the Observer, a number of people asked why the Pacific County Sheriff’s Office didn’t issue a so-called “Silver Alert.”

While the Silver Alert program is an overall success, it is less helpful for vulnerable adults, like Davis, who live in rural communities. There is no surefire way to keep people with dementia from wandering, two experts said, but planning, open communication and new technologies can go a long way toward keeping them safe.

How Silver Alert works

Washington State Patrol’s missing persons unit has long had a system for cases of “endangered missing persons”; those who have conditions like dementia that would make it difficult for them to return to safety without assistance, said Carri Gordon, who coordinates missing persons programs.

A 2015 state law added so-called “Silver Alerts” to the response plan. They are issued for people who are older than 60, suffering from dementia, and known to be driving. When a vulnerable adult goes missing, local police can choose to alert State Patrol.

Gordon and her colleagues offer guidance to the investigators. They also help them disseminate alerts to law enforcement agencies, the media, and citizens who have signed up for notifications.

The program has helped a lot of people — in 2016, there were 53 Silver Alerts, statewide. All but two were successful.

An imperfect system

Silver Alerts do have limitations, Gordon said. WSP’s main tool for getting the word out is messages that are displayed on electronic signs on state-managed highways. That means they are probably more effective for people who disappear in urban areas than for people like Davis, who get lost many miles from the nearest highway reader-board.

Even when police and the public work together, it’s not possible to save every missing senior. Two recent subjects of Silver Alerts were found dead in their vehicles, Gordon said. Some people have additional medical issues that further reduce their chances of survival. Others, like Davis, go to places where no one is likely to spot them.

“Probably if they would have activated [the Silver Alert system], even with all of the notifications that went out, it would not have affected her recovery,” Gordon said.

Early signs

Gordon thinks the alerts have helped build awareness of a growing problem.

About six in 10 people with dementia will wander at some point, often more than once, said Erica Farrell, of the Washington Alzheimer’s Association.

Scientists don’t yet have a good explanation for why it happens, but caretakers and experts have noticed some common triggers. Sometimes, the wanderer is “trying to fulfill an obligation or deep sense within that they need to be somewhere else,” Farrell said. Boredom, overstimulation and physical discomfort can also spur people to wander.

“Even early on, this behavior can arise,” Farrell said.

There are often warning signs. A person in the early stages of the disease may start frequently misplacing items, suddenly forget the layout of their house, or how to find a familiar place, she said.

Planning and prevention

Planning and coordination in the early stages can prevent tragedy later on, Farrell said.

“Community education, education for friends is important,” Farrell said. Relatives should make sure the sufferer’s friends, neighbors and church members know whom to contact in an emergency. It’s also helpful to have people check in on a consistent, predictable schedule.

The Alzheimer’s Association encourages caretakers to get familiar with the affected person’s routines, as well as their neighborhood.

“One of the things we suggest is to identify the areas nearby where someone might wander — are they dangerous?” Farrell said.

“ID bracelets are very helpful,” Farrell said. She also recommends GPS navigation devices for affected people who are still driving. There are also programs, such as Medic Alert Safe Return and Project Life Saver, that use GPS-enabled bracelets or other devices to locate missing vulnerable adults.

What to do if someone is in trouble

If they’re not in the area, the person’s family members should be alerted any time something seems to be amiss, Farrell said. Adult Protective Services may be able to help in cases where the person appears not to have a support system. The Alzheimer’s Association’s 24-hour hotline can also offer guidance.

“Ninety-four percent of people who wander are found very close to home or the place they disappeared from,” Farrell said. So it makes sense to do an organized search of the missing person’s immediate environs.

However, she said, it’s critically important to call the police as soon as possible, and let them know the person has dementia.

“Be clear with the police that the person is a vulnerable adult — that they have a medical condition that puts them at risk,” Farrell said.


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