State to sound alarm for straying seniors

by Tony Bizjak, Sacramento Bee

A decade after California launched its Amber Alert program, which enlists citizen help in searching for missing children, the state will add a similar program for another of society’s at-risk groups: its elderly.

It’s called the Silver Alert program.

Starting Jan. 1, if a person age 65 or older with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease is reported missing and believed to be in peril, local police will have the authority to ask the California Highway Patrol to issue an electronic bulletin asking for public, news media and broader law enforcement help to find the person.

California joins an estimated 30 states with Silver Alert programs, acknowledging a growing issue for the nation as the population ages and the number of people suffering from some form of dementia increases.

It’s about time, said Joseph Murphy of Tracy, a member of the California Senior Legislature, who has been pushing for years for an alert program.

“California is usually a national leader,” Murphy said. “But this time they were dragging their feet.”

As the massive wave of baby boomers ages, California’s 65-plus population is projected to double from 4.5 million to 9 million in the next 20 years.

An estimated 500,000 seniors now are living with some level of dementia, a number expected to double by 2030, according to former state Sen. Elaine Alquist, the Santa Clara Democrat who authored the Silver Alert law, Senate Bill 1047.

The new law differs from Amber Alerts in several respects. Amber Alerts often are triggered when a child is believed to have been abducted. Silver Alerts are likely to be triggered when older people wander or drive away from their homes or nursing facilities ‘ a practice common among people with moderate to severe dementia.

Advocates for the elderly say it is critical to track down a missing wanderer in the first 24 hours. Many will walk or drive for hours, even if they are feeble. They may fail to eat, may not be dressed for inclement weather, and generally won’t ask for help. They may need medications for their health.

“If not found within 24 hours, up to half of wandering seniors with dementia suffer serious injury or death,” a state legislative analysis said.

Ruth Gay of the Alzheimer’s Association of Northern California said wandering happens when a person becomes confused and fails to recognize his surroundings. The person typically will set out looking for familiar surroundings, or “home,” even if that home is a childhood residence he hasn’t lived in for decades.

The stories have become commonplace:

‘ A south Sacramento man leaves for a short walk and comes out of his fog hours later, 10 miles from home, completely lost.

‘ A man driving to Los Angeles forgets he is traveling with his wife and leaves her at a roadside restaurant. He is found three days later, on foot and confused at the Mexican border.

‘ An elderly Bay Area man drives aimlessly for 36 hours, gets in two crashes and is finally stopped by police and ticketed for driving the wrong way on a street.

Law author Alquist said the state needs to continue to expand its safety net for the elderly.

“When we think of the number of baby boomers out there, it is a train wreck in the making if we don’t figure out ways to protect our seniors,” Alquist said.

Her law will sunset at the beginning of 2016, but can be extended by legislative vote if officials determine it is useful.

Some other states’ Silver Alert systems apply to missing people of all ages, acknowledging the fact that some people in their 50s and even younger suffer from confused thinking and dementia. Alquist said she wrote her bill limiting California’s program to people 65 and older, for now, to reduce opposition from state officials who worried about the potential cost and burden of a more expansive program.

Under the new law, the CHP, once contacted by local law enforcement, will determine if the case is dire enough to be posted on electronic bulletins, including messages to news media and neighboring law enforcement agencies.

Unlike Amber Alerts, missing seniors’ information won’t be posted on freeway signboards. Television and radio stations will have the option of whether to interrupt programming to broadcast the alert.

According to state officials, an alert will be activated if “the person is missing under unexplained or suspicious circumstances,” and if law enforcement “believes the person is in danger due to age, health, mental or physical disability, environment or weather conditions.”

The alert can be triggered also if the elderly person is “in the company of a potentially dangerous person, or there are other factors indicating that the person may be in peril.”

While the system is expected to receive widespread publicity, officials said alerts may not be activated very frequently.

Amber Alerts for missing children have been triggered only 200 times in the decade that system has been in place. The state also has a Blue Alert system, which can be activated when a law enforcement officer has been killed or assaulted by someone who has fled.

Sacramento city police officials said they regularly get calls about missing adults, but most of those are quickly resolved and often are based on miscommunications. City police Detective Chris Bernacchi estimated that about 10 reports of elderly people who disappeared last year would have met the criteria for the new alert.

“It will be helpful to get everybody on the same page,” said Bernacchi. “Anything that will get more information to the public to assist us in locating a missing person is great.”