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When Granddad Goes Missing: The Silver Alert Program

Judy McKee, End of Life Health Care Project Coordinator and Counsel

Judy McKee, Project Coordinator and Counsel, End of Life Health Care

I’ll never forget the date – May 12, 2000. I had taken the day off from work at NAAG to finish all of the arrangements for our daughter’s wedding that was to take place in a week. The last fitting for our dresses; a final number to be given to the caterer; a check to be mailed to the florist; an appointment with our pastor; a start on the seating chart; final arrangements as to where all of the family members were going to stay. My husband and I were also looking forward to the bittersweet experience of watching our son’s final appearance that night as a pitcher for his high school baseball team.

And then came the telephone call from my mom. My dad, whose dementia — after having suffered a stroke some five years previously — was getting progressively worse, had somehow located the car keys that I had urged be carefully hidden. He was gone and so was the car.

“How long?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” sobbed my mom. “I heard him get up and then I fell back asleep.”

“Call the police,” I said. “I’ll be right over.”

A report on the Alzheimer’s Association’s website notes that nearly 60 percent of people with Alzheimer’s disease will wander; up to 70 percent of wanderers do so repeatedly. According to this report, research estimates that more than 127,000 critical wandering incidents occur each year.1 Close to half of those citizens who are not found within 24 hours will become seriously injured or will die. A 2003 article in the Journal of Advanced Nursing described wandering as one of the most challenging behaviors to manage in folks with dementia.2

The Alzheimer’s Association offers and supports a Safe Return program, a nationwide registry and proactive search-and-locator service.3 This program has helped in the safe return of more than 8,000 people since 1993. Government funded, it operates 24/7 with a toll free crisis line. The program provides identification jewelry, wallet cards and clothing labels with a toll-free 800 number on them. There is a registration fee of $40.

But neither I nor my mother was aware of the program before we experienced that excruciating day of waiting and worrying. Even if I had known about Safe Return, it would have been difficult for me to convince our mom that she should sign my dad up for it since there had been no prior wandering issues. In fact, as I quickly learned after I arrived at my parents’ house, my mom had not even changed where she placed the car keys. “I really didn’t think that he would try to drive the car; it’s been almost six years,” she said, looking both guilty and defiant at the same time.

The local police came fairly quickly. They took information about the car and a picture of my dad and promised to send out information to the rest of the local police force. They would keep us informed. If he had not been found by the evening, they would put information out on the local radio and television stations. We were fortunate. For some local police, it is the policy that a person must be gone at least 24 hours before officials will act.

The hours inched by with excruciating slowness. My 90-year-old mother was devastated and sat in stony silence, refusing to eat or drink and silently weeping. My emotions wavered from love and compassion for her to anger that she hadn’t taken my advice. I was tortured with worry for both my dad’s safety and for the safety of others on the road. When we had received no news after nearly three hours, I called the police contact and asked if the state police and the police from neighboring jurisdictions could be contacted. Unfortunately, however, my dad had disappeared seven years too early. There was then no way that local police could initiate a Virginia-wide alert for a wandering senior citizen.

Virginia has now remedied that situation. In the 2007 legislative session, the Commonwealth, on the urging of Attorney General Bob McDonnell, passed the Virginia Senior Alert Program,4 which became active on July 1. The legislation established a mechanism to issue a state-wide alert when an over 60-year-old person with a cognitive impairment has been reported missing. The program uses a variety of methods to get information out concerning the missing person: the Emergency Network System, the Virginia Criminal Information Network; the Virginia Missing Person Information Clearinghouse; and even the public utilities’ communication system.5 When coupled with North Carolina’s Silver Alert system,6 police officials from a two-state area can be on the alert for a missing senior citizen.7

A Silver Alert program was also signed into Texas law in 2007. According to one article, nearly 800 Texas senior citizens go missing from their homes and nursing facilities every year.8 The Texas legislation requires that the missing person be at least 65 and domiciled in Texas. Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia are among the states considering passing Silver Alert statutes in this legislative session. Colorado’s statute provides for a state-wide alert whenever a person with cognitive disabilities or a senior over the age of 60 is missing and it is determined that there is a credible threat to that person’s well-being.9 Oklahoma’s H.R. 1075 became effective on June 7, 2007. Once the Silver Alert is activated in Oklahoma, the system automatically gives other law enforcement agencies and the media descriptions of the missing person and where the person was last seen. Silver Alerts are also broadcast through the NOAA weather radio system. Michigan extended its Amber Alert program to include senior citizens in 2001 and Illinois’ Silver Alert program was activated in 2006.10

With the Amber Alert system already active in each state, the addition of a “Silver” or “Senior” Alert easily utilizes processes already established. As is the case with abducted children, the earlier an alert can be posted, the more likely it is that the missing senior citizen will be found and be returned safely to his or her home. However, there is some concern that extending the Amber Alert system to seniors will vitiate the program. New York’s governor vetoed legislation passed in 2005 citing that consideration.

As for my father, we were incredibly lucky. He was found, parked on the side of a busy highway, out of gas, three hours south of our home. Police took him to a local hospital; we were notified by telephone that he had been found after a tow truck driver located his wallet in the car. It had been an exceedingly long and difficult 11 hours. Hopefully, as states pass legislation similar to the Silver Alert statutes, other families will be spared the agony we experienced on that Friday in May and more seniors will be returned safely to their homes and loved ones.


1 Available at http://www.alz.org/advocacy/2006program/5a.asp .

2 C.K. Lai and D.G. Arthur, “Wandering Behaviour in People with Dementia,” 44 J. Adv. Nursing 173–82 (2003).

3 See http://alzheimers.about.com/od/givingsupport/a/safe_return.htm?p=1.

4 Va. Code § 52-34.5

5 For more information on the Virginia Senior Alert Program, visit http://www.vasenioralert.com .

6 N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143B-499.8 (2007).

7 One of the Virginia police officials I contacted while researching this article opined that the system should include anyone of any age with a cognitive impairment instead of being limited it to those over 60.

8 See http://missingchildprevention.wordpress.com/2007/03/07/silver-alert-or-amber-alert

9 Colo. Rev. Stat. § 24–33.5–415.8 (2007).

10 20 Ill. Rev. Stat. § 2605/2605–375 (amended by 2007 HB 194).

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