Group links wandering Alzheimer's victims with help

Monday, September 10, 2001

TOLONO, Ill. -- Bruce Hertig first heard about Safe Returns at an Alzheimer's Disease support group meeting about two years ago.

Hertig was there with his wife, Laurel, who was diagnosed about three years ago as a victim of the disease that causes confusion and other devastating symptoms. He said he wanted to make sure his wife was safe, especially when they were traveling, so he signed up for the program, which puts Alzheimer's victims wearing identification bracelets or necklaces on a national registry.

"We were going on a trip, and I signed up in case something happened to me," Hertig said. "I'm 76, and anything could happen. If it did, at least she'd be connected with a contact."

"It addresses the issue of wandering," said Sara Marsh, program manager for the local Alzheimer's Association.

She said locally in the past few years, there have been several incidents of victims wandering away from nursing homes. Some ended tragically.

"The person at risk is registered, and all their information goes in to a national data base," Marsh said. "They receive a bracelet or necklace with an 800 number on it, and if they wander, that's the contact."

If a registrant is missing, the national data bank can fax detailed information about him or her to local police. If a person is found, the finder can call the 800 number and Safe Return will notify that person's contacts.

Caregivers can also order jewelry identifying them as someone who is taking care of someone with Alzheimer's.

Marsh said it costs $40 to register, but the local Alzheimer's Association will cover that cost for residents of Champaign, Piatt, Douglas, Ford, Vermilion, Edgar, Coles, Cumberland, Clark, Moultrie and Shelby counties.

The association also covers the cost of caregivers' jewelry.

"We have about 11 people registered in the 11-county area, and we'd love to have more," Marsh said.

Spurred into action

Louise Allen learned six years ago that her husband was an Alzheimer's victim.

Joseph Allen, formerly a professor of Spanish, Portuguese and linguistics who was also a University of Illinois policy activist, spoke six languages fluently during his academic career.

"Now I can barely understand what he's talking about," Allen said. "That's hard."

But the dismal diagnosis spurred Allen into action: she got involved in Alzheimer's support activities, and she signed up for Safe Returns because she was beginning to worry about his absences.

"He was still at home, and he didn't have a tendency to wander, but he was mobile, and he'd get in a conversation with a neighbor and stay longer than I expected," she said. "And I'd worry."

Joseph Allen now requires full-time care, but Allen still feels better that he's wearing the bracelet that's his link with people who could help him.

"It's a very quick opportunity for someone missing to be located," she said. "You hear tragic stories about wandering in cold weather."

Allen said she thinks more people would take advantage of the service if they knew about it and knew the cost is covered by the local association.

"We just don't have as many people as we think we should," she said. "I wish they would participate. It's a safety thing. That's the real purpose of it."

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