Photo courtesy of Texas Department of TransportationA recent Silver Alert on a Texas state highway automated sign. ( Stateline.org removed the license plate number to protect the owner's privacy.)
When 83-year-old Helen Long left her North Carolina home without notice last January, her daughter called state police.
The police alerted the community using automated road signs and radio and television ads that aired descriptions of Long and her truck and explained that she had dementia. Within six hours, a UPS driver spotted her vehicle, called for help, and Long was returned home unharmed.
But not all elders with dementia who go missing are rescued with such efficiency - or at all.
North Carolina is one of only eight states with a new type of missing persons program called Silver Alert that experts say is urgently needed to address a growing problem.
Every year, hundreds of seniors and others with dementia wander away, on foot or driving, and if not found within 24 hours, at least half suffer serious injury or death, according to the Alzheimer's Association . As baby boomers age, the toll is expected to multiply.
So far, Silver Alert - patterned after a national program for missing children known as Amber Alert - has resulted in the safe return of a majority of those reported.
"The beauty of Silver Alert is that it's something people can remember. If you just say 'Silver Alert,' people know there's a confused elderly person out there who needs help," Carlos Higgins of a senior advocacy group, the National Silver-Haired Congress , told Stateline.org .
Legislators in Florida, Louisiana and New York are discussing proposals for next year.
At least 5.2 million Americans suffer from dementia, and research shows that six out of 10 of those will wander. Only 4 percent of those who leave home alone are able to find their way back without help, according to the Alzheimer's Association.
Like the successful Amber Alert program established in the mid-1990s to locate missing children, the state-run Silver Alert accelerates the usual missing persons search by using public broadcast systems, state transportation department automated road signs and a 511 emergency call-line to involve the community in rescuing vulnerable seniors.
State programs - which administrators say are inexpensive to operate because they piggyback on existing Amber Alert communication systems - vary from state to state. All states use similar public announcements but differ on who is covered and what is required to file an alert.
In Texas, for example, a caregiver reporting a missing senior must do so within 72 hours of the person's disappearance and provide medical documentation verifying a diagnosis of mental impairment. Only those 65 years old and older who are Texas residents may be reported.
In North Carolina, no medical diagnosis or state residency is required, and the program covers anyone with cognitive impairment, not just senior citizens.
In both states, law enforcers say the use of Silver Alert is growing rapidly as more people learn about the program.
Texas police have received 31 Silver Alert reports since the program began in September 2007. Of those, 27 were found alive, three were found dead and one is still missing. North Carolina has received 20 requests to post missing seniors since the program began in December 2007; three are still missing but the others were found unharmed.
Inspired by the initial success of Silver Alert, members of Congress want to speed nationwide development of the program.
Last month, the death of an 86-year-old Florida woman who disappeared from an assisted-living facility prompted U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.) to propose a $5.6 million federal grant program that would offer at least $100,000 per state to seed development of the program.
"This tragedy unfortunately highlights the very real problem of older residents, many of whom suffer from diseases which leave them easily confused and disoriented, wandering away from their homes or care-giving facilities and meeting harm because family, friends and authorities could not find them in time," Bilirakis said.
In addition, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) plans to introduce a bill this month that would make Silver Alert a federally coordinated program in all 50 states.
"A nationally coordinated program could take good ideas from states and spread them to others and before long we'll have a national program with the media cooperating with law enforcement just like they do for Amber Alert," Higgins of the National Silver-Haired Congress said.
In states with Silver Alert programs, Alzheimer's Association volunteers are helping train law enforcers on how to find and approach those with dementia. The group also is informing the public about Silver Alert and educating caregivers on methods of preventing those with dementia from wandering.
Silver Alert has few opponents, although proposals in some states have been rejected because of budget concerns and worries that law enforcers already are overburdened. Some state policymakers also have cautioned that too many alerts could make the public less likely to respond.
In North Carolina, the Silver Alert program is operating with no new money, and the Texas Legislature appropriated a small increase in public safety funding to cover administrative costs.
Amber Alert also began as a state-run program. In 1996, Dallas-FortWorth broadcasters teamed with law enforcers to develop an early warning system to help find abducted children. The program was created as a legacy to a 9-year-old Texas girl named Amber Hagerman who was kidnapped and murdered.
Other states followed Texas' lead and in 2002, President George W. Bush directed the U.S. Department of Justice to help every state set up an Amber Alert plan. To date, the Department of Justice has spent nearly $20 million for state training and technical assistance.