Caring for and keeping a cognitively impaired person safe challenges every assumption about what a person might or might not do. As Elder Law of East Tennessee’s Care Coordinator I hear frightening stories from some of our clients’ families. Without any warning, someone who has never shown a tendency to wander might leave their home on foot going who-knows-where only to become disoriented and lost in a matter of minutes. Families, caregivers, and institutions can keep a watchful eye, but still the very mobile but cognitively impaired adult manages to slip past the safeguards, hop on a bus or get in a car, and be gone in a flash. It happens a lot — so much so that many states have passed Silver Alert legislation. Modeled after the Amber Alert system for locating missing children, Silver Alert is aimed at mobilizing law enforcement and other community resources to locate missing impaired senior citizens as quickly as possible.
In August of 2009, Tennessee became the ninth state to enact Silver Alert Legislation. In the original bill, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation was to be the go-to agency. Unfortunately, this never came to fruition due to budget constraints. Instead, local police or sheriff departments became the gatekeepers for Silver Alert. In East Tennessee, Knox, Blount, and Scott counties have all had occasion to issue a Silver Alert. Since there is no statewide protocol, law enforcement in each locality makes a judgment about when or if a Silver Alert is warranted. Just as protocols vary among localities within Tennessee, protocols vary from state to state.
What can families do? In addition to typical safety measures such as door alarms, locks, safe return bracelets, removing car keys, or disabling vehicles, families caring for an older adult with dementia might want to consider taking advantage of the free National Silver Alert registration service. Vital personal, medical, health, and caregiver information can be stored and easily accessed for a small initial fee and a low annual maintenance fee. Increasingly, technology allows families to unobtrusively monitor their impaired loved ones’ movements. Though a bit on the pricey side, wrist watches and sneakers equipped with GPS chips could be invaluable in locating an impaired adult who has wandered away on foot or managed to elope in a car.
Keep your local law enforcement phone numbers handy. In small towns or rural communities especially, get to know the sheriff or chief of police and alert them that you have an impaired loved one in the community. Keep several copies of a recent photograph handy and/or have a digital version you can easily e-mail. Don’t hesitate to enlist the help of local media if your loved one is ever missing. Be sure that neighbors are aware of your loved one’s situation and have your contact information in case they become concerned about anything they observe. Finally, if keeping your loved one safe from getting lost becomes a full-time job, it may be time to consider care in a more secure environment. Elder Law of East Tennessee helps families to consider all their options and to pick the one that best fits all concerned.