Silver Alerts Help Find Disoriented Elderly

When 86-year-old Mary Zeltzer of Largo, Fla., failed to return to her assisted-living complex in February after driving to pick up groceries at a local market, her daughter, Mary Lallucci, became worried.

Seven days later, Lallucci found her mother dead from drowning in her car at the bottom of Florida's Intracoastal Waterway.

"My mother had obviously become disoriented and drove six miles off track and ended up on a street that led to a boat ramp," said Lallucci, whose mother had dementia. "She drove down it and into the water and drowned."

Lallucci of Tallahassee said that if Silver Alert -- a warning system used to notify communities of missing elderly people -- had been around at the time of her mother's disappearance, Zeltzer might still be alive.

"Unfortunately, I'll never know if Silver Alert would have saved my mom," said Lallucci, who hopes to one day become the national spokeswoman for Silver Alert should Congress pass the National Silver Alert Act, which awaits Senate approval.

"I absolutely think the alert would have helped -- within hours of when you call a Silver Alert, thousands of eyes are there looking for the car and the license plate," she said.

Silver Alert -- similar to Amber Alert, which authorities use to inform the public about missing children by interrupting television and radio programs and displaying the information on electronic highway signs -- is available in 12 states, including Florida, which has issued 28 alerts since launching its program in October.

Missing Elderly, Senior Citizens

Instead of using television stations and electronic highway signs to notify the public about endangered children, Silver Alert calls attention to missing members of the elderly community.

About 5.2 million people in the United States live with Alzheimer's , 200,000 of whom experienced early onset of the disease, according to the Alzheimer's Association.

And while the protocol for activating a Silver Alert varies from state to state, most of the 12 states that have the program require local law enforcement to confirm that the missing person is a danger to himself or others and that the individual suffers from some sort of dementia before issuing the alert.

In Ohio, for example, sufficient information that will help the public identify the missing person, such as a make or model of a car the older person might have been driving, must be available before an alert can be issued. The missing individual must also be at least 65. In North Carolina, the age limitation is much lower -- missing people can be as young as 18 as long as there is a verified developmental disability at the time of their disappearance.

In Florida, the state with the second-highest population of people 65 or older -- California ranks No. 1 -- a Silver Alert can be issued for people 60 or older who have clearly indicated that they have an irreversible deterioration of intellectual faculties. In more extreme cases, people 18 to 59 can also fall under the guidelines for a Silver Alert if they, too, show signs of dementia and a lack of capacity to consent.

Silver Alert Provides Comfort

E. Douglas Beach, Florida's secretary of elder affairs, said that Silver Alert has put many families at ease, providing comfort to them should they have a family member who has dementia.

"I think it's hugely important in Florida, especially," Beach said. "With one of the highest senior populations in the nation, we all know people who have gotten confused, and it's nice to have another tool in our tool kit to try to find these people."

Using the most recent data available, Florida reported 360,000 cases of Alzheimer's in 2000, according to the Alzheimer's Association, a number that is expected to have grown by 25 percent by 2010.

Michigan, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania each have Silver Alert legislation pending, but have all battled criticisms that adding another electronic alert system might diminish their effectiveness.

Too Many Alerts a Bad Thing?

According to the nonprofit National Association of State Units on Aging, former New York Gov. George Pataki vetoed the state's Silver Alert system, suggesting that it would weaken the Amber Alert system and "make the alerts too common."

But Beach disagrees. "Is that criticism to suggest that we shouldn't look for these people?

"Anytime we have an alert like this, it's very important and our network is going to go out and try to find those seniors as soon as possible," he said.

Kristen Perezluha, the public information officer for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, said that state officials will be reviewing the alerts they've issued in the past few months in an effort to ensure they are not misused.

"It's something that's still in the beginning stages, and it's something we're going to look at and tweak," Perezluha said.

Since the inception of the Silver Alert in Florida Oct. 8, 28 alerts have been issued and all but one person was found alive, Perezluha said.

"We definitely don't want this to be something that is just ignored," Perezluha said, responding to criticism that frequent alerts will become white noise to residents. "We want it to have value when it's issued in our state."

Tallahassee's Lallucci doesn't want to see the problem ignored anymore, either.

"We're all very aware of how many of us who are going to be coming into our elderly ages," Lallucci, 55, said. "Every state needs to have Silver Alert systems to protect elderly people of the potential harm that could occur if they wander or become disoriented.

"Who doesn't want to help Mom and Dad?"