When a child with autism went missing in Hendersonville a couple of years ago, the police didn’t just ask his parents what he was wearing: They wanted to know a number of things, including what the boy liked to do.
“His mom said he loved water, that he would always head toward water,” remembers Monica Howard, a dispatcher for the department. “We found him by a pond near his home. We knew to look there because his mom gave us that information.”
A happy ending, for sure. But just think how much sooner he might have been found if police had had instant access to a description of the boy, photos and information about where he might go, she points out.
James Ervin Crouse, 84, was not so fortunate. In January, he was found dead one day after a search had begun.
“I wake up at 2 a.m. sometimes and I think about these things,” says Hendersonville Police Chief Herbert Blake. “I know that man was found outside city limits in the county, but it bothered me.”
Blake wondered whether the police might have found Crouse alive if they’d had some sort of informational head start. He’d read about a voluntary registry for people with dementia that enabled police to access key information and post it to all on-duty officers, saving precious time, and he thought about setting up a similar program in Hendersonville. A guide published by the International Association of Chiefs of Police provided a ready model, and the local version launched in January.
“It can happen anytime,” notes Blake. “You run into the bank to make a quick deposit or into the store to pick up something, and the person gets out of the parked car and walks away. It’s not a matter of neglect; it’s more a matter of a caregiver can’t be there every moment.”
Keeping people safe
In the program’s first month, eight people registered. Carrie, who asked that her last name not be used, says she signed up her husband as soon as he was diagnosed with dementia.
“I know if I get home from an errand and he’s not here, I can make a call and every police officer will have his information within seconds,” she explains. “I think this program is awesome. I saw it on social media, and I knew it was something we needed.”
To register, family members fill out a form and provide one or more photos, which are uploaded to a computer file. Caregivers can access the form online, visit the Hendersonville Police Department or have a hard copy mailed or hand-delivered to their home. The information is shared only if the person is reported missing, stresses Howard.
Hendersonville is a retirement destination, and although most of those folks are healthy older adults, in time, some inevitably begin to develop conditions related to aging, including dementia.
“The first priority is keeping people safe,” says Blake. “The more quickly we can get information out to our officers, the more likely the person will be found alive and uninjured.”
The information in the registry goes beyond a simple description. Family members are asked to describe the person’s favorite activities and places; whether they’ve ever been reported missing before (and, if so, where they were found); and whether there are any specific emotional triggers that police need to know about.
“If we know someone is afraid of bright or flashing lights, that will help us in dealing with that person when we find them,” Howard explains.
Saving precious time
The International Association of Chiefs of Police doesn’t keep track of how many law enforcement agencies have such programs, but a spokeswoman said it’s a growing trend as the baby boomer generation ages and dementia becomes more common.
In Asheville, for example, the Fire Department uses a computer program called First Due, which provides information about pets and people with disabilities. The department, notes spokeswoman Kelley Klope, “is getting ready to roll out Community Connect, which is an extension of First Due.” The expanded program will offer a voluntary registry where residents can provide information about pets, children and people with special needs, including dementia. First responders will be able to access that information while they’re en route to the destination.
Christine John-Fuller of the Alzheimer’s Association’s Western Carolina chapter says such registries are a growing trend because they save time when someone goes missing. In fact, the national association has its own program, MedicAlert + Safe Return, which uses a bracelet to identify the individual. The bracelet shows the phone number for a hotline that’s staffed around the clock, enabling anyone who encounters the lost person to get more information. The family can also call and ask that the information be shared with other agencies that are helping in the search. The program charges $55 for the first year (including the cost of the bracelet) and a $35 annual membership renewal fee after that.
Tips for caregivers
The Alzheimer’s Association offers these tips for preventing wandering:
- Establish a routine for daily activities. Caregivers should identify the likeliest times of day that the person might be likely to wander off and then plan activities during those times. This can help reduce anxiety, agitation and restlessness.
- If the person feels lost, abandoned or disoriented, reassure them that they’re safe. If they say they want to go home or go to work, the caregiver shouldn’t try to correct them. Instead, offer assurances such as, “We are staying here tonight. We are safe and I’ll be with you. We can go home in the morning after a good night’s rest.”
- Ensure that all basic needs are met. Has the person used the bathroom? Are they thirsty or hungry?
- Avoid busy places. Destinations such as shopping malls and grocery stores can be confusing and cause disorientation.
- Position locks out of the line of sight. Install them either high or low on exterior doors, and consider placing slide bolts at the top or bottom.
- Install devices that signal when a door or window is opened. This can be as simple as a bell placed above a door or as sophisticated as an electronic home alarm system.
- Provide supervision. Don’t leave someone with dementia unsupervised in new or changed surroundings. Never lock a person in at home or leave him or her in a car alone.
- Eliminate access to car keys. The person may forget that they are no longer able to drive.
Even with these precautions, however, people with dementia can wander, and it’s best to be prepared, says Howard.
“We can pull up this form, with photos, and have it distributed to police and rescue personnel in seconds,” she emphasizes. “Every minute counts, especially in very cold or very hot weather, and having the person’s information at our fingertips saves a lot of time. We don’t have to go out to the house and interview family members, because we have all the information we need right here.”
Blake, meanwhile, says the program “is what community policing is all about. It’s not about zero tolerance or getting tough — it’s about keeping people safe.”
The Alzheimer’s Association’s Western Carolina chapter can be reached at 828-254-7363. The national organization’s 24-hour help line is 800-272-3900.