States consider 'Silver Alerts' for missing adults

Monday, May 4, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

MONTVILLE, Conn. — Frail retiree Thomas Drew was 91 and suffering from dementia when, clad in a maroon sweatshirt and jeans, he disappeared from his home in rural northwest Connecticut.

Who has Silver Alerts?

HARTFORD, Conn. — Fifteen states had adopted Silver Alert programs as of Thursday, and legislatures in several others were considering it.

A bill establishing a national, coordinated Silver Alert system also has been approved by the U.S. House of Representatives and awaits action in the U.S. Senate.

The states with Silver Alert programs are Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Ohio, Rhode Island, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia.

In most, the alerts apply to people diagnosed with dementia, Alzheimer's disease or other cognitive impairments. Some limit it to senior citizens; others include impaired adults ages 18 and older.

The federal bill, if approved, would also authorize up to $10 million in grants to help states create Silver Alert programs.

Drew hasn't been seen since that warm Saturday afternoon in July 2007, an example of the perils facing millions of Americans living with dementia, Alzheimer's disease and other mental impairments.

Now, several states and Congress are considering alert systems to notify the public when a cognitively impaired adult like Drew goes missing or wanders away. Called "Silver Alerts," they are modeled on the Amber Alerts issued to prompt widespread publicity about missing children.

As baby boomers age and dementia diagnoses are skyrocketing, Missouri and 14 other states have adopted Silver Alert systems. Lawmakers in several others — including New Hampshire, Tennessee and Wisconsin — are considering them.

Connecticut's state Senate approved a bill Thursday to set up such a system, sending it to the state House for a vote. On the same day, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels signed his state's Silver Alert program into law.

A measure to set up a national Silver Alert system also has passed the U.S. House of Representatives and awaits Senate action.

How the system works

Supporters say the goal is simple: spreading the word as quickly and widely as possible when an impaired adult wanders away so he or she can be returned to safety.

In many states, it involves flashing the person's face on electronic billboards; working with broadcasters to spread his or her description; and posting messages on highway traffic-incident signs and state lottery ticket terminals.

The Chicago-based Alzheimer's Association says 5.3 million people in the U.S. have Alzheimer's disease, including 5.1 million of them ages 65 and older. And with baby boomers aging, , there's a new case about every 70 seconds, the association says.

About six of every 10 Alzheimer's and dementia patients will wander away from their caregivers at least once, with only limited mental ability to explain their predicament to strangers or find their way home.

"The biggest thing is that to find somebody, it takes bodies, people — and there's not always enough law enforcement to do that. This recruits so many extra sets of eyes," said Montville resident Herbert Hicks, who testified before Connecticut lawmakers this year for the proposal.

Experiences of caretakers

For Hicks and millions of other caretakers nationwide, the issue goes beyond statistics.

Frontal lobe dementia transformed his wife, Betty, in less than three years from a savvy bank executive to a restless woman who talked plaintively of wanting to "go home," though she was sitting at her own kitchen table.

Her attempts to wander away prompted Hicks to retire early from his firefighting career, hire caretakers and install special locks on their doors to keep her inside until her death in April at age 68.

Although they had what Hicks calls "a few interesting experiences in the yard" as she was caught and diverted inside, others haven't been so lucky.

Drew was popular in his small town of Salisbury, where "missing/endangered person" signs featuring his face and description still hang in some stores and the library.

Searchers returned to the region as recently as April 25, finding no sign of the retired fashion designer.

What if?

Police and his family often wonder whether Drew, who was so frail he could barely walk in church without gripping each pew, may have been picked up by a stranger in a vehicle — a stranger who, if a Silver Alert had been in effect, may have known that his passenger was the subject of a frantic search.

A few towns away, Litchfield still mourns the 1999 disappearance of James Garris, an 80-year-old Alzheimer's patient who wandered away from a convalescent home on one of the year's hottest days. Like Drew, his body has never been found.

Allison Drew, one of Thomas Drew's two daughters, said they are unsure whether they will ever have answers, but that her experience leads her to fully support Silver Alerts.

"I don't know what happened to my father or how he came to be missing, but basically all we know for sure is that he's not there," said Drew, a professor who lives in the United Kingdom community of York and frequently returns to Connecticut.

"Any system that would provide information would be a great idea to help if someone who's a vulnerable person is missing," she said. "Who's to know if it would have helped in my father's case, but I think it definitely would be helpful in general."

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Charles Dudley Jr May 4, 2009 | 4:45 a.m.

Great idea and all state should work to implement this much needed program.

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