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Utah's Silver Alert program will help find dementia patients who wander from caregivers

SALT LAKE CITY — Rich Dixon got out of the shower one morning to find his wife, Patricia, was gone.

After reaching out to police and the fire department, she was found attempting to get into a home that was not hers. She had walked around barefoot and across a busy street looking for what she thought was home.

After that, Dixon added multiple locks to his doors so his wife couldn't leave alone, and would no longer even take a shower without being aware of exactly what she was doing. Dixon cared for his wife for seven years while she progressed through stages of dementia.

"It’s just very, very frightening. What do you do? I mean you go out and look but sometimes they wander great distances," Dixon said.

Utah is creating a Silver Alert program to help find endangered seniors and those with dementia who have wandered away from home. Created by HB215, which passed unanimously in the House and Senate during the recently completed legislative session and was signed by the governor, the program will go into effect later this year.

Local Silver Alerts will work through a reverse 911 call. Cellphones can be registered with the local 911 dispatch center.

Utah's aging population is growing significantly. There are more than 33,000 Utahns diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, but national statistics suggest that accounts for only half, according to Jeremy Cunningham, director of public policy for the Utah chapter of the Alzheimer's Association.

Cunningham said 60 percent of adults with Alzheimer's will walk away from caregivers at some point. Between now and 2025, about 21,300 adults will wander in Utah. And he noted that Alzheimer's patients often wander farther — 2 to 5 miles — than the national average because of the rural nature of much of the Beehive State.

Trina Anderson, memory care director at Sheridan at South Jordan, an assisted living facility that also offers adult day care, likes the the idea of the program.

"I think (the Silver Alert program) is really cool," Anderson said, adding "I hope I never have to use it."

Anderson said the care facility conducts drills and practices procedures if a patient is lost, but the facility hasn't had a resident wander away.

The facility is proactive in its work with seniors with dementia, trying to keep them engaged, both physically and mentally, so they are less likely to wander.

"We create the environment where they’re thriving and enjoying life again, and then they don’t want to wander because … they’re enjoying the moments," Anderson said.

One resident likes to swim, so they take him swimming on Wednesdays, she said. They go on field trips and get out of the bus to do activities most Mondays.

"If we get out they get to feel like a normal person again, they have purpose and feel a sense of belonging," Anderson said.

But the center also takes measures to ensure residents don't walk away unnoticed. Each has a bracelet that will alert the staff if the resident gets close to an exit, giving them 15 seconds to intervene before the door opens. They can also see each resident's location from their phones.

Cunningham said 39 states have a program like the Silver Alert, but Utah's is unique because it will include a geographical aspect, reaching out first through local alerts and contacting local officials and media. This differs from Utah's Amber Alert program, which sends push alerts to the entire state.

Later, if there is evidence the senior has used a car or other transportation, the alert will expand and use messaging boards on freeways and interstates.

The program will also allow law enforcement to send an alert if they have found a senior and are attempting to contact their family or caregiver.

The Alzheimer's Association reached out to Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, who sponsored HB215 to create the Silver Alert system. Perry said before there wasn't much a small police department could do when looking for an adult who had wandered, especially if they had access to a car or public transportation.

"I want law enforcement to have the tools they need to work out from the area they were last seen in," Perry said.

Perry said a few years ago a man got keys to a car and drove off. After a three-day search in Box Elder county, police found he had died in the car in nearby Cache County. He said the Silver Alert system could have helped find the man sooner.

The odds of finding a person are much higher when everyone is looking, Perry said, and not just police and family members. He said using the Utah Department of Transportation's overhead signs can get people in the area to start talking about and looking for a missing person.

Detective Greg Wilking, of the Salt Lake City Police Department, said the department sees on average about one instance a month where police are called to locate a senior with dementia

"I like anything that we can get that information out there quickly because time is always of the essence," Wilking said.

He did express concerns the system would not reach as many people because more people are using cellphones and online landlines are automatically registered.

As part of the bill, the Alzheimer's Association is providing training throughout the next year for police and first responder agencies.

Dixon, who lost his wife to dementia, notes the new Silver Alert program fits in well with highlighting the importance of community involvement to help a caregiver. He remembers being able to call members of the Relief Society from his Latter-day Saint congregation when he needed help, and both his children and her children were available as well. He sees the Silver Alert program as bringing another level of support.

"I think (the program) would give them reassurance that other people were concerned and other people were willing to keep their eyes open and be looking," Dixon said.