Det. Lt. John Allen, commanding officer of Nassau's special services squad, which includes adult missing persons cases, said he sees about 40 Alzheimer missing person cases a year, which is only a tiny percentage of his overall adult missing persons caseload of 600. Still, because of the cognitive issues in Alzheimer's cases, time can mean the difference between finding someone alive or finding them frozen to death.
"The problem with missing persons cases - we're not very good at finding people," Allen said. "We're pretty good at finding cars, because that's what police do. We're pretty good at finding EZ Passes, cell phones. . . . If you're talking about grandma and grandpa, 90 years old, walked out of the house without a wallet, without car keys, without a cell phone and they walked away and they had a little cash in their pocket and they might have gotten on a bus or a train - they're not easy to find."
Allen said families often miss signs that their loved one will begin wandering. "They may have been talking to their family about their high school and best friends," Allen said. "But the families often aren't very good at telling us those sorts of things, recognizing those conversations when they take place, it's just 'grandma and grandpa go off about the old days.' Well, it's not, it's the precursor to them going looking for the high school."
Allen said families are also not forthcoming about the true stage of their loved one's illness or their mobility. He cited a recent case where an 89-year-old woman wandered away from her Jericho home. The woman was identified by her family as slightly forgetful and walking with a cane. She was found more than seven miles away at Garden City High School.
"They're in denial that their mother or father or loved one is in certain stages of Alzheimer's," Allen said. "They'll say they're slightly forgetful. They're not slightly forgetful, they're in the throes of Alzheimer's. You need to be honest with yourself."
But those with Alzheimer's or other dementias can be wily when necessary and sometimes they surprise even those in the know. Darlene Jyringi, who runs the Alzheimer's Disease Assistance Center of Long Island in Stony Brook, was a long-distance caregiver to her mother, who lived with her son and his family in Massachusetts. No one in the family imagined that the frail woman who was deep into Alzheimer's would wander, especially since she was tethered to an oxygen tank 24 hours a day. But one time, during the middle of the night, she proved them wrong by putting on her slippers and walking a half a mile in the middle of a snowstorm.
"For me as a professional, I had a lot of guilt, thinking that this could have happened, even knowing all the other circumstances that she couldn't walk 10 feet," Jyringi said. "But, she was on a mission. And, boy, when people are on a mission, it's amazing what they can do."
Allen recommends that families take measures to ensure their loved one's safety, such as putting special locks on the doors and using bells or alarms to alert them when doors are opened.
After her husband Calvin walked from Elmont to Brooklyn in the cold, Mary Williams and her daughter Rainer placed bells under the door. But Calvin soon figured out how to quietly remove them and get out. His daughter was amazed that her father, despite being cognitively impaired, could still understand how to do this and that he also knew to go out a side door of the house, since going out the front door would require him getting past his wife. The family has placed a different type of buzzer alarm on the doors, but Mary is skeptical.
"It's only a matter of time before he's going to figure out how to turn it off and he's going to be able to ease out of here while I'm here during the day and don't know he's gone," she said. She doesn't know what the next step would be. "It's hard to figure out. Maybe some kind of tracking device," she says with a laugh.
Allen said that while it can be difficult to slowly strip away someone's freedoms - especially a former authority figure such as a parent - it is a necessity to keep them safe. "You're the best caregiver in the world, at some point in time you have to go to the bathroom," he said. "And they're gonna head for the door."