States look at 'Silver Alerts' for missing impaired adults
MONTVILLE, Conn. -- Thomas Drew was 91, frail and suffering from dementia when, clad in a maroon sweat shirt and jeans, he disappeared from his home in northwest Connecticut.
Drew hasn't been seen since that Saturday 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, 15 states have adopted Silver Alert systems. Lawmakers in several other states, including Missouri 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.
Supporters say the goal is to spread the word as quickly and widely as possible when an impaired adult wanders away so they can be returned to safety.
In many states, it involves flashing the person's face on electronic billboards; working with broadcasters to spread the person's description; and posting messages on highway traffic-incident signs and state lottery ticket terminals.
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 Herbert Hicks, of Montville, Conn., who testified before state lawmakers this year for the proposal.
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 doors to keep her inside. She died in April at age 68.
Though 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, missing since 2007, 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.
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, might have known that his passenger was the subject of a frantic search.
A short distance 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 the family is 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."