Programs help locate wandering Alzheimer patients

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Experts point to the following programs as helpful in locating dementia patients who wander:

Safe Return

In the Alzheimer’s Association’s Safe Return program, individuals are registered with an ID number and given a bracelet or necklace identifying them as having a cognitive impairment. When they go missing, their family can call a hotline number and the organization immediately disseminates the missing person’s photo and biographical information to local police, fire and media. Those who find a person wandering can call the toll-free 24-hour emergency response number on the bracelet and the individual’s family or caregivers are contacted.

The enrollment kit for Safe Return costs $49.95 plus a $25 annual renewal fee. The kit includes among other things, a MedicAlert Identification bracelet or pendant and a Personal Health Record Summary as well as safety tips. The Alzheimer’s Association’s Mary Ann Malack-Ragona said she gets Safe Return calls for missing family members at least once a week.


But the bracelets can be problematic for those with some awareness and recognition of the stigma that still surrounds the disease, said Det. Lt. Joseph Williams, commanding officer of the Suffolk Police Fugitive and Missing Persons Unit. Williams had a family member with Alzheimer’s and said there is often resistance on the part of the patient. “It was difficult to have this woman wear it . . . it was like a mark of something. ‘I’m not wearing anything like that.’”

But Malack-Ragona said that for people who do take part in the program, 99% of wanderers are reunited safely with loved ones.

Project Lifesaver

An initiative recently introduced in Suffolk through the Sheriff’s Department is Project Lifesaver. With Project Lifesaver, clients wear a “watch-type” wristband transmitter worn on the wrist, ankle or as a necklace, which emits a tracking signal. Each person is given a unique VH frequency “like a fingerprint,” said Deputy Sheriff William Weick.

When a caregiver calls the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department Project Lifesaver line to report a wanderer, a search team responds and while in route, activates the vehicle’s mobile locator tracking system. A hand-held unit is used to search for clients in areas inaccessible by vehicles.

They put the frequency into the receiver so that it can pick up the signal and use a directional antenna. Officers divide the area into grids, then narrow the search area as they pick up the signal. “It’s simple but effective technology,” said Undersheriff Joseph Caracappa.

The department said they currently have nine clients. Local nursing homes and adult day services have also shown an interest, Caracappa said. The national organization states that more than 900 law enforcement agencies in the United States and Canada have used the equipment to find more than 1,900 people who have wandered.

All of the equipment costs $319.59, including shipping, and gives families a one-year supply of wristbands, batteries and a mini battery tester. After that, it costs $10 a month. Batteries emit a signal every second and must be changed monthly. Project Lifesaver says the assigned public safety agencies keep track of when the battery needs to be changed and will go to the person’s home to do so every 30 days.

While endorsed by the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America, the Alzheimer’s Association does not support Project Lifesaver, said Mary Ann Malack-Ragona, head of the Long Island chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. She said she has seen the program fail and would prefer that it be done in conjunction with the association’s own MedicAlert+Safe Return Program.

“It is not foolproof – nothing really is – but with the MedicAlert+Safe Return bracelet, there is always a way to identify a wanderer and then get him or her medical attention and back to their caregiver,” said Malack-Ragona.

Nassau’s Det. Lt. John Allen, commanding officer of Nassau’s special services squad, which includes adult missing persons cases, also has doubts about Project Lifesaver. “That’s great for some rural area but that doesn’t work here,” he said. “It doesn’t work for the Alzheimer’s patient in a car.”

Christine Platz, director of Programs and Media for Project Lifesaver said that while the technology range is one mile on the ground and five to seven miles in the air, they are able to mobilize other agencies in the area to track the signal. Neighboring counties may assist in locating missing persons if they are trained with Project Lifesaver and they believe the client to have wandered to a neighboring county, Platz said.

Critics of the program point to GPS as having more accuracy but Weick said GPS technology isn’t always reliable. A person who goes missing in a wooded area might not produce a strong signal, he said, nor will a person hiding in a basement or in a multistory building. Satellites might also be impacted by inclement weather, he added. “That’s not what a caregiver wants you to tell them when you’re looking for their loved one,” he said. A radio signal, which is closer to the ground, is more reliable, he said, and the frequency can be picked up 20 miles away.

Project Lifesaver can help reduce the search time for a wanderer from the average nine hours to 30 minutes, Caracappa said, and the average life expectancy for someone who wanders is only three hours. “So this truly becomes a lifesaving device,” he said.

Silver Alert

In March, the Suffolk County Legislature passed the creation of a “Silver Alert” program to help locate missing seniors and those with cognitive impairments.

The Silver Alert program, which has already been implemented in 11 states, is similar to the “Amber Alert” program used to find missing children. When a person with a cognitive impairment, such as Alzheimer’s disease, is reported missing, alerts will be posted on highway signs throughout the county and the police will distribute identifying information. A similar statewide bill was vetoed by Gov. David A. Paterson in November. “We’re happy Suffolk County has done this because we’d like to see it done in other counties to show Gov. Paterson that it is seriously needed,” said Malack-Ragona.

Nassau’s Det. Lt. Allen is skeptical of the program, particularly being used on the county level, since Amber Alert is a state program. “The more localized you’re going do it, the less effective it’s going to be,” Allen said. “And the truth of the matter is Amber Alert is used very, very infrequently, very cautiously, for the primary objective is you don’t desensitize the community.”

But supporters say the program allows for information to be disseminated quickly and widely, leading to faster return of wanderers. Fifteen states have already adopted Silver Alert and several more are currently considering the program. A measure to set up a national Silver Alert system also has passed the U.S. House of Representatives and will next move to the Senate.

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