May 4, 2009
A growing number of states are adopting Silver Alert programs, an alert system that helps locate seniors with Alzheimer's disease who become lost. To date, the system has helped reconnect hundreds of lost dementia patients with friends and family.
Modeled on the Amber Alert system, which is used to locate lost or abducted children, the Silver Alert system is activated when someone 60 or older with Alzheimer's or another form of dementia goes missing. Alerts are sent out to local law enforcement, as well as radio and television stations and other media outlets, providing the name, license plate number, a photo, physical attributes and other vital identification information.
It is common for people with Alzheimer's to wander or drive off and become lost. Quickly locating the missing person is critical, since it is estimated that half of those who are not found in the first 24 hours will suffer serious injury or death.
If someone with Alzheimer's is reported missing, alerts are broadcast through a variety of outlets. In addition to radio, TV and the Internet, electronic highway signs that normally convey traffic conditions, for example, may give the make and license plate number of a missing Alzheimer's patient's car. Or, thousands of automated phone calls may go out to homes in the area where the Alzheimer's patient went missing. Some 95 percent of people with Alzheimer's disease who wander are found within a quarter-mile of their place of residence or the last location seen.
Silver Alerts help local law enforcement find elders with dementia or other cognitive impairment and return them home safely. For families and caregivers of loved ones assisted by the Silver Alert, it also increases awareness of the possibility of future problems or the need for additional assistance.
While the Amber Alert system is now active in all 50 states, the Silver Alert program is just now gaining traction. Colorado was the first state to initiate the program, in 2006. Since then, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Ohio, Texas, Virginia and Florida are among the states that have followed suit. Bills are pending in other states, and a nationwide Silver Alert bill is pending in Congress.
In Florida, home to more than 4.3 million residents age 60 and older, a statewide Silver Alert system was signed into law late in 2008. The bill was prompted in part by the disappearance of 86-year-old Mary Zelter, a woman with early Alzheimer's who disappeared after signing out of her assisted living facility in Largo to drive to the supermarket. A week later, Mrs. Zelter and the vehicle she was driving were found in the inter-coastal waterway, about nine miles from her assisted living facility. Presumably, she had mistaken the boat ramp for a road.
"In a missing person situation, getting the word out -- and getting it out quickly -- is key to a swift and safe recovery," said Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey. "Florida's plan ensures a prompt and comprehensive response while ensuring the privacy and dignity of our elders."