Saving Seniors

Warning systems help save lives when senior citizens with cognitive disorders wander away from home.

by / September 25, 2007
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When 89-year-old Cruz Fierro wandered the streets of El Paso, Texas, in May 2006, after his release from the Beaumont Medical Center, residents didn't know the elderly man was disoriented and suffered from Alzheimer's disease. Very few people knew he was missing until several days later, when Fierro was found dead and local media reported the story.

This tragic event made Texas Rep. Joe Pickett and the Texas Silver-Haired Legislature - a nonprofit group that encourages senior citizens to get involved in the legislative process - question why an alert system wasn't in place to notify the public of missing elderly people, especially in central Texas, which has one of the highest elderly populations in the country.

"Had there been some notification system in place, it may have been possible to save him" Pickett said.

This was especially troubling to policy-makers since the Amber (America's Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response) Alert system originated in Texas. Amber Alert notifies media and law enforcement agencies when children go missing and broadcasts messages across roadway signs to inform the public.


Silver Alert
The Texas Silver-Haired Legislature recommended the creation of a "Silver Alert" system to Texas lawmakers as a way to quickly notify Texas residents when an elderly person with Alzheimer's disease or dementia is missing.

The Texas Legislature held hearings on the possibility of such a system, and heard many stories of elderly people who went missing. Cruz Fierro is one of an estimated 900 elderly people reported missing every year in Texas.

Pickett helped create legislation establishing Silver Alert, which was passed in May 2007 as SB 1315 and will go into effect Sept. 1, 2007. The Texas Silver Alert system will cost relatively little to implement, Pickett said, since it will use the same infrastructure as the state Amber Alert system.

"This program has a potential for saving a lot of lives," said Carlos Higgins, secretary of the Texas Silver-Haired Legislature and chair of its legislative action committee. "It's just a means of the community letting people know who they need to be on the lookout for and what sort of person they need to be looking for."

If Texans over the age of 65 have Alzheimer's, dementia, are mentally impaired in some way and are reported missing, the Texas Department of Public Safety (TDPS) will then determine the appropriate alerting avenues at state, regional or local levels. Pickett said the TDPS can send alerts to all levels of law enforcement agencies, TV, radio and newsprint media, and show warnings on freeway message boards.

"Because an alert will come from an official base, like the TDPS, there will be no question about it," he said. "If I called TV news and said my 86-year-old parent is missing, they aren't going to cover it unless there is an official notice."

Texas isn't alone in developing systems to locate missing seniors. Other states are working on or have already rolled out Silver Alert programs, most of which also use pre-established Amber Alerts systems. Michigan extended its Amber Alert program to include senior citizens in 2001, and Illinois' Silver Alert program went live in 2006.

In February 2007, Colorado's governor signed HB07-1005 into law, creating an alert program for senior citizens and people with developmental disabilities. Virginia, Indiana and Oklahoma are ironing out the details of similar programs, and California officials have contacted the Texas Silver-Haired Legislature about Texas' Silver Alert program, Higgins said.

Former New York Gov. George Pataki vetoed a bill to create a Silver Alert system, however, saying another type of alert would make missing-person alerts too common. Pickett said that while drafting the legislation to create Texas' Silver Alert program, legislators were careful to keep Silver Alert to a narrow, specified demographic of at-risk elderly people to avoid making

alerts too frequent.


Missing Seniors
Approximately 5.1 million people in the United States suffer some form of dementia, and about 60 percent of those will wander away from their homes or care facilities, said Monica Moreno, associate director of safety services for the Alzheimer's Association.

"That's a huge number of people at risk, and we never know when they may wander," Moreno said, adding that the first 24 hours are critical because 50 percent of the elderly who are lost either sustain serious injuries or die after that first day.

When those afflicted with Alzheimer's or dementia wander around a town or rural area, they often don't respond to others because they regress to childhood, according to the association.

The Silver Alert complements existing programs for people with dementia, including Project Lifesaver International, which features personalized wristbands that emit tracking signals. When a caregiver notifies a local Project Lifesaver agency of a missing person, a search and rescue team uses a GPS-enabled mobile tracking system to find the person. Project Lifesaver says its recovery time averages 30 minutes.

The Alzheimer Association's Safe Return program consists of a national identification database for people with Alzheimer's and wallet cards, special pendants or bracelets, clothing labels, lapel pins and bag tags that specify a person belongs to the program.

Anyone who finds an elderly person wandering the streets can call the Safe Return toll-free number listed on the elderly person's wallet card or bracelet, and the operator will alert family members or a caregiver listed in the database. The Safe Return program also files a report similar to a missing persons report and submits it to law enforcement agencies.

Since its inception in 1993, nearly 100,000 people have registered with Safe Return, and the program says it has a 99 percent success rate, helping more than 7,500 individuals reunite with their families and caregivers.

In 2006, the Safe Return program helped facilitate the return of more than 1,600 who  had wandered or became lost, Moreno said, noting that two-thirds of the calls received by Safe Return are from police officers or people who notice something is wrong with a person.

"A person can be very active with this disease. They're in the early stages and still driving. They're going about their normal routine and at some point during their daily activity, they become confused, disoriented and they don't know where they were going and where they came from," Moreno said. "That's when we find a situation when a Good Samaritan notices that there's something not right with that person, and that's when they call us."

Through these numerous safety measures and alert systems, losing an elderly person from wandering is becoming less likely.

The Texas Silver Alert system is important to Katherine Higgins, Carlos Higgins' wife who's also a member of Texas Silver-Haired Legislature. She feels her uncle's death may have been avoided if such a system had existed 15 years ago -- her uncle wandered from his home in Tulia, Texas, in 1993. He was missing for six days until he was found dead in an Oklahoma field.

"I thought it might have been useful when my uncle disappeared," Katherine Higgins said. "Only after Amber Alerts, people started saying, 'Well, you look for missing children. Now how about the elderly?'"
Chandler Harris Contributing Writer