Florida Adopts ‘Silver Alerts’ for Mentally Impaired Elderly Who Wander Off
By CARMEN GENTILE
Published: December 17, 2008
MIAMI — Charlie Brownlee, who is 76 and suffers from dementia, staggered out of his sister’s Miami home barefoot one day last month and got behind the wheel of a car.
Mr. Brownlee’s condition is generally manageable with medication, but on that day the family was dealing with the death of a relative, and no one had remembered to give him his pills. “And just like that,” said his sister, Mary Agnes Jones, “no one knew where he was.”
Frantic, the family reported Mr. Brownlee’s disappearance to the police, who immediately issued a bulletin under Florida’s newly created Silver Alert program.
Similar to the Amber Alert, declared when a child is abducted, a Silver Alert is circulated when a person 60 or older who suffers from dementia or another cognitive impairment like Alzheimer’s disease goes missing. About a dozen other states, including neighboring Georgia, have adopted similar programs, and legislation creating a national program is pending in Congress.
In Florida, where the elderly are so large a share of the population and, according to state government estimates, account for half a million cases of Alzheimer’s, the Silver Alert has had an immediate impact, officials say.
Indeed, all of the 19 people for whom the state has issued bulletins since adopting its program in November have been found, said E. Douglas Beach, Florida’s secretary of elder affairs. That includes Mr. Brownlee, who, having been missing for two days, was discovered by a police officer parked in a roadside ditch some 30 miles north of his sister’s house.
One feature of the Florida program sends an automated phone call to every residence within a one-mile radius of the missing person’s home, providing pertinent information like a physical description and the vehicle being driven, if any. In Mr. Brownlee’s case, said Detective Jose Rojas of the Miami Police Department’s missing persons unit, “we put out about 5,000 calls describing what he looked like, the car he was driving and which way we thought he was traveling.”
In another feature, for cases like Mr. Brownlee’s in which the missing person is thought to be behind the wheel, the Florida Department of Transportation’s “dynamic message signs,” which normally alert drivers to traffic conditions and detours, flash a physical description of the person, the kind of vehicle, its license plate number and possible direction traveled.
Mr. Brownlee was apparently trying to return to his own home, in Tuscaloosa, Ala., when he was found. Some who suffer from dementia think they can quickly get back to their former homes, however distant, said Christa Ksiezopolski of the Alzheimer and Parkinson Association of Indian River County, up the coast just north of Fort Pierce.
“They aren’t like you or I,” Ms. Ksiezopolski said. “They don’t understand how far they are from home.”
That can be all the more serious in a state to which so many of the elderly move.
“You see how many seniors we have here,” Gov. Charlie Crist said the other day at the groundbreaking of a new home for the elderly in South Miami. “It’s important that we take care of the seniors that are vulnerable.”