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What to do when a loved one with dementia goes missing
Technology can help searchers find missing dementia patients
A tracking device that helps find Alzheimer's and Dementia patients who get lost sits on a table at the Public Safety Complex on Thursday, Aug. 23, 2018. - photo by Austin Steele

When a person goes missing, seconds count, even more so if the person has dementia.

Despite caregivers’ best efforts, people who require full-time monitoring can sometimes slip away in an instant, putting their own lives at risk, and the effort to find them can quickly tax people and resources.

But technological advances have now created alternatives to launching a massive search.

A local woman with Alzheimer’s disease is waiting on one such alternative that could help law enforcement locate her faster and with less effort should she ever get lost. And all she has to do is wear a bracelet.

Memories lost, moments cherished

A series exploring dementia, how it affects our community and the resources available to those affected. Read other stories in the series.

‘A great deal of manpower’

The 24-hour wait period seen on TV for missing persons is not the rule of thumb for law enforcement, said Gainesville Police Sgt. Kevin Holbrook.

“We want to be notified as soon as possible, and unfortunately, all too often that’s not the case. People do wait, and when you are looking for a missing person — any individual from a child to an adult — those seconds matter,” he said.

Missing persons calls involving juveniles and those with dementia take priority over all others. Because of the large number of nursing homes and facilities in the area that care for the elderly facing dementia, Holbrook said the department does not receive many of these types of calls. But they do happen.

Holbrook recalled a case of a man who recently walked away from a care facility.

Patrol officers responded to gather information before the criminal investigations division got involved as well as other police department staff.

“Those types of cases can require a great deal of manpower, especially depending on the location. If it’s an apartment complex, we want to make sure that we go door-to-door looking for individuals,” Holbrook said.

Officers eventually found the man in the woods near Lake Lanier’s shoreline. Gainesville Police had contacted the Department of Natural Resources and Georgia State Patrol for their respective boats and aviation units, but the man was found before the resources were deployed.

Project Lifesaver

Finding a missing person with dementia doesn’t necessarily have to involve boats and helicopters.

Pilot Club of Gainesville, a local nonprofit dedicated to improving “the quality of life in Gainesville and Hall County by our actions, our deeds and our gifts,” started in 2007 raising funds for Project Lifesaver, a nonprofit organization that provides tracking equipment that officers can use to find people with brain-related conditions. 

Patients wear a bracelet with an individualized frequency and a number which is sent to the 911 center that can be tracked by law enforcement via handheld antennae. The Hall County Sheriff’s Office has two receivers, while the Flowery Branch and Gainesville police departments each have one.

The bracelets are no larger than a wristwatch, each with a small transmitter and battery, and are typically for patients who require full-time monitoring by a loved one or facility.

“If you happen to have to go to the bathroom or want to take a shower, and that person slips out of the house and gets away from you, that’s the type of situation this is. It’s not for somebody that actually can be left at home while you go to work or whatever,” said former Gainesville Pilot Club president Sherrill Day. 

Day said the local project has had as many as 10 people with bracelets, half being Alzheimer’s and half autism.

“We’ve had four or five of them die, people that were Alzheimer’s patients. They’ve either passed away or they’re in a lockdown facility,” she said.

Of the four people currently enrolled in the Gainesville area, three are autistic and one is an Alzheimer’s disease patient. 

Pilot Club of Gainesville officials said the waiting patient will receive her bracelet once law enforcement receives more training on Project Lifesaver.

“We’ve not done it (because) we wanted to have everybody certified again,” Day said.

Gainesville Police Lt. Nina Harkins said the department and the Hall County Sheriff’s Office will be participating in a round of training in the coming weeks, which is being set up by Pilot Club member Linda Buffington. The plan for training is to have two or three officers per shift from the departments come, leading to about 25-35 certified members.

“When we first started this project, everybody who went through training had a card in their wallet … with (Linda Buffington’s) name and phone number on it,” Day said.

Aiding a Mattie’s Call

According to the National Crime Information Center’s 2017 statistics, there were 33,896 people missing person reports nationwide when the person was “under proven physical/mental disability or is senile.” These cases represented 5.2 percent of all the new missing person files in 2017.

Reports of missing persons with dementia or other mental disability can result in a Mattie’s Call. Created in 2006 by the Georgia legislature, Mattie’s Call is an emergency alert for “disabled or elderly persons” that is activated by a local law enforcement agency, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Activation requires a law enforcement agency believing a “disabled person is missing and is in immediate danger of serious bodily injury or death” and all other explanations have been eliminated. Once there is enough information to release to the public and to be entered into the NCIC database, the law enforcement agency “must issue a statewide broadcast to law enforcement/911 centers and contact local media regarding the missing person.”

All of that can cost precious time, and the longer a patient is missing, the more uncertain the outcome.

Project Lifesaver claims an average response time of 30 minutes or less which is “95 percent less time than standard operations without Project Lifesaver.”

According to the website, there were two rescues this year involving Project Lifesaver in Georgia. The latest was in March in Winder, where a person with dementia was recovered in 22 minutes.

Participating in the program

To take advantage of those recovery times, patients have to be enrolled. 

Interested families can contact Day at 770-532-0636 or Buffington at 770-532-7392.

The cost is free.

“In the very beginning, they were like $300 a piece, but we have enough funds that we provide them now free of cost,” Day said. 

Pilot Club members, who are all volunteers, go out each month and change the batteries in the bracelets, Day said.

Because of the personal medical information that is released to law enforcement, the family must sign a Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, release.