— Eleanor Alexander never deviated from her night-time
routine. She’d eat a light dinner, let her dog
"Spot" out, let him back in, double-lock the screen
door. And then, she and her companion would call it a night.
evening of July 26 started the same way. The 78-year-old told
her son she would eat a few bites of the vegetable soup he had
brought her, then go to bed. She already had on her
pink-striped pajamas when he left.
unknown reasons, instead of going to bed, she stepped outside
her rural Coweta County, Ga., home and started walking,
dressed in nothing more than night clothes and slippers.
hours, search teams — deputies and volunteers, people on
horseback and guiding four-wheelers, some with search dogs
straining at leashes — spread out across the landscape,
looking for a tiny target: a woman with wavy white hair, blue
eyes, barely weighing 100 pounds.
found her three days later. Alexander, suffering from
dementia, was tangled in a barbed-wire fence in a patch of
woods about a mile from home. She was alive, but barely: her
body temperature had dropped to 84 degrees.
such as Alexander’s have been rising, posing challenges for
public and private agencies. Dementia sufferers who wander —
six of 10 will at some point — can trigger extensive and
expensive searches, and not all are found.
law enforcement agencies are adopting new technologies to
track individuals with dementia, but none is perfect. Experts
also say that families can be slow to recognize that a loved
one is at risk of wandering.
she went missing, Alexander’s son and daughter-in-law had
encouraged her to move in with them. But she balked at the
idea, and insisted on having her own place.
couldn’t have imagined she would ever go out solo,"
said Becky Alexander, who believes her mother-in-law likely
has Alzheimer’s disease although she’s never been formally
diagnosed. "She was a homebody. … In hindsight, we
should have had someone objective weigh in."
spring of 2004, Mattie Moore, a 67-year-old Atlanta woman,
wandered away from home. Her body was found eight months later
in a wooded area, just 250 yards from her front door.
death prompted Georgia legislators to create a statewide alert
system to help find missing adults with Alzheimer’s disease,
dementia or other mental disabilities.
like the "Amber Alert" for missing children, a
Mattie’s Call disseminates information about a person’s
disappearance to the media, other law enforcement agencies, as
well on Georgia Lottery machines and signs. The missing person
is also listed in the National Crime Information Center
Mattie’s Call went into effect in 2006, the number of alerts
has increased nearly fivefold. In 2007, there were 31 across
the state. Last year there were 150. This year, by the end of
July, 76 alerts had been issued, including one for Alexander.
recent cases include:
woman who said she was going to the gym a half mile from home
and ended up in Alabama driving on the wrong side of the road.
Florida man who drove to Georgia until he ran out of gas.
missing Macon, Ga., woman who was found in the attic of a
vacant rental property the family once owned.
number of wanderers is expected to rise as baby boomers age
and face a diagnosis of dementia. One in 8 people age 65 and
older (and nearly 1 in 2 people over age 85) have Alzheimer’s
an absolutely huge, huge problem," said Carol Steinberg,
president of the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America. "It
can happen out of the blue. The person could be hungry or
thirsty or in their mind be hooked on the idea that they need
to go home and they are already home."
each day, the odds of finding a missing person drops, but the
odds are even worse when the missing person suffers from
with Alzheimer’s are often going somewhere, searching for
something, and don’t necessarily consider themselves lost.
of the time, the person takes off on foot and gets lost less
than a mile from home. Instead of crying out for help, they
become frightened and disoriented and might hide from their
rescuers. Search missions can last 20 minutes or they can drag
on for days.
average time of finding someone missing with Alzheimer’s is
about nine hours, according to a 2012 report, "Lost and
… Found" by the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America.
search and rescue missions are also expensive undertakings,
costing taxpayers $1,500 per hour, according to the report.
Atlanta, the number of people with dementia who go missing
average 1 to 2 a month and represent a small number of the
yearly total of 500 missing persons cases. Yet, when a person
with dementia goes missing, it’s automatically considered a
"critical missing person."
are the ones that are very nerve racking," said Atlanta
Police Department Capt. Paul Guerrucci, head of the Homicide
Unit (which houses the Missing Persons Division). "We
worry about dehydration, being outside in the elements. We
worry about a person who cannot take care him or
hours, a missing person with dementia only has a 50/50 chance
of being found alive, according to the Alzheimer’s
Foundation 2012 report.
for a person can be a needle in a haystack," said Ginny
Helms, vice president of chapter services and public policy at
the Georgia chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. The
local chapter assists with 10 missing person cases a month
across the state, and has a dedicated staff member to work on
missing case, Helms said, carries a common thread.
one expects it to happen," said Helms "And that’s
Alexander immediately suspected something was wrong when she
approached her mother-in-law’s house on the morning of July
27 and heard Spot (her mother-in-law’s beloved beagle mix)
squealing. The screen door was not locked.
scurried to each room of the house, yelling,
"Eleanor" and "Mawmaw," the nickname
coined by Elizabeth, Alexander’s granddaughter and Becky’s
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wearing flip flops, hurried back to her house next door and
changed into sneakers.
frantically searched again. She looked outside to a wide open
field that suddenly appeared ominously vast.
called 911. Coweta County Sheriff’s Department got the
missing person’s call at 9:58 a.m. Deputies searched around
the house. They called family and friends to make sure they
hadn’t picked her up. And then, they called the Georgia
Bureau of Investigation to issue a Mattie’s Call.
spread, a tip from someone who said they spotted a woman in
pink striped clothing walking alone the previous evening along
Highway 34. The all-volunteer Alpha Team K9 Search and Rescue
focused on the northern swath where she was reportedly
friends and strangers passed out fliers. They posted them on
telephone poles, and gave stacks to postal workers. They
created a Facebook page: "Find Eleanor Alexander."
They knocked on doors. They prayed. And they canvassed the
area, step by step — dense areas with brier patches,
thickets and knee-high grass.
night, the ground search was scaled back. But the Coweta
Sheriff’s Department sent special helicopters equipped with
thermal imaging (which can pick up a person’s heat) to find
darkness fell, the Alexander family grew increasingly worried.
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were times I would think, we will find her," said Becky
Alexander. "But there were times I would look outside
into the jet black night and think, this is what it must be
like for her. She has nothing to eat. Nothing to drink. What
about the wild animals — the coyotes, a fox? I could hear
the animals at night."
lived alone, but her son and his family lived next door no
more than 100 yards away. They brought her meals every day,
often delivering them by golf cart.
liked her independence. One of the hardest things to do is to
force a family member to live with you or something like
that," said Becky.
you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do."
was first noticed missing Saturday morning.
Tuesday morning, hope for a good outcome had diminished.
crowd of rescuers never gave up. And close to 11 a.m. on that
Tuesday, during a search in an eastern patch of woods — the
opposite direction of where Alexander was reportedly spotted
late Friday evening — Tracy Sargeant, with her search dog
"Cinco," called out.
Alexander lying in the grass, covered with bug bites and with
ants crawling on her skin. Her eyes were closed. At first,
Coweta County Sheriff’s Lt. Col James Yarbrough didn’t
think the elderly woman was alive. He knelt down and could
tell she was breathing.
variety of electronic tracking systems are now available to
help locate missing people with dementia. They can vastly
improve the chances of finding someone, but each has
handful of police and sheriff’s departments across the state
have turned to Project Lifesaver, a bracelet-like device that
emits a silent tracking signal to help locate wandering
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Atlanta, agencies that have the program include Coweta County
(where Alexander went missing) Fayette County Sheriff’s
Department, Cherokee County Sheriff’s Department and the
Atlanta Police Department.
program requires the jurisdiction to invest about $4,000 for
the tracking equipment; each bracelet costs about $360. It’s
also time intensive, requiring specially trained officers to
change out the batteries in the bracelets once a month.
program requires each enrolled person to have 24-hour care,
because it’s not intended to take the place of supervision
and the bracelet has a limited tracking radius. Alexander, who
lived alone, would not have qualified.
Pope, director for the criminal investigation division for
Fayette County, said the average time of finding someone with
a bracelet is under 30 minutes.
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said only 6 people are enrolled in the program and he suspects
dozens more would be good candidates if they knew about it.
also not an easy sell, according to law enforcement.
people say, whether it’s a spouse or parent, they say, ‘I
can handle this,’" said Pope.
it takes some convincing," he said.
city of Atlanta, which is one of the biggest police
departments in the country with the program, 16 people with
dementia are enrolled. They rarely turn up as a missing person
case in part because family members who have enrolled them
tend to be more vigilant, said Atlanta’s Guerrucci. But
Guerrucci said it’s important for people not to have a false
sense of security with the device, especially since it can
help narrow the scope of the search but not provide a precise
Alzheimer’s Association offers a GPS-like tracking device
called, "Comfort Zone," which uses a phone or
pager-like device to keep track a loved with Alzheimer’s and
is designed for people in the early stages of the disease.
There’s a startup cost of $99 for gadget and a $14.99
say a critical first step is a more low-tech solution: getting
a simple ID bracelet. Since wandering can happen at any time
of the day or night, it’s not uncommon for a missing person
with dementia to be without a wallet or identification.
people are found by Good Samaritans who recognize something
amiss and help a person get home safely. An ID bracelet can
speed up the person’s return home. Medic Alert bracelets
include a 1-800 number to help reach family members and
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best precautions can’t guarantee a person with dementia’s
noon on June 6, Kenneth Lawson left his house — without a
76-year-old man with Alzheimer’s had strayed previously, and
each time, deputies discovered Lawson close to home. He seemed
to always head east. In late May, Sgt. Donnie Harrison with
the Greene County Sheriff’s Office convinced the family to
enroll Lawson in Project Lifesaver.
went to Lawson’s home to personally place the Project
Lifesaver gadget around Lawson’s wrist. But within a week,
Lawson had somehow removed the device — designed to be
comfortable but not easy to take off.
said the sheriff’s department got the call about an hour
after Lawson first went missing. He said he understands why
families want to first search on their own, but added that the
first few minutes can be critical in a search and rescue
searched high and low. We used dogs and helicopters. Everyone
was out there: every deputy, volunteers, even the sheriff was
out there," said Harrison.
last seen wearing a red, long-sleeved shirt and baseball cap,
lived with one of his children. Lawson often spoke longingly
about moving back to Knoxville, where he lived many years ago.
No one may ever know why he left his house on that June
now, he is still missing.
Alexander continues to update the Facebook page. She cries
when she talks about the people who had never met her
mother-in-law but helped look for her, many of whom continue
to ask for updates and send good wishes. Her mother was
recently moved to a rehabilitation center, and her health
also using the Facebook page to help raise awareness and help
families navigate the difficult and complex challenges of
keeping their loved ones safe. She recently posted information
about Project Lifesaver. Already, Coweta Sheriff’s
Department, which typically has 1 to 2 people enrolled in the
program, had three new people just enroll.
have told me where they are with their family members and
dementia, and they say, ‘We know it’s coming, the walking
and wandering but we are not there yet,’" said Becky
Alexander. "But it can literally change overnight. My
husband and I were also talking about it and we didn’t think
we were there yet. But you don’t always have a signal or a
sign that it’s about to happen. It can just happen."
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Having a routine can provide structure.
Reassure the person if he or he feels lost, abandoned or
the person with dementia wants to leave to "go home"
or "go to work," use communication focused on
exploration and validation. Refrain from correcting the
person. For example, "We are staying here tonight. We are
safe and I’ll be with you. We can go home in the morning
after a good night’s rest."
Ensure all basic needs are met. Has the person gone to the
bathroom? Is he or she thirsty or hungry?
Avoid busy places that are confusing and can cause
disorientation. (ie.,shopping malls, grocery stores or other
Place locks out of the line of sight. Install them either high
or low on exterior doors, and consider placing slide bolts at
the top or bottom.
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Camouflage doors by painting them the same color as the walls,
or cover them with removable curtains or screens. Cover knobs
with cloth the same color as the door or use childproof knobs.
devices that signal when a door or window is opened. This can
be as simple as a bell placed above a door or as sophisticated
as an electronic home alarm.
Provide supervision. (Never lock the person with dementia in
at home alone or leave him or her in a car without
supervision) — Keep car keys out of sight.
Someone with Dementia is Missing: — Begin search-and-rescue
efforts immediately. Ask neighbors, friends and family to call
if they see the person alone. Keep a recent, close-up photo
and updated medical information on hand to give to police.
the individual right or left-handed? Wandering generally
follows the direction of the dominant hand.
a list of places where the person may wander. This could
include past jobs, former homes, places of worship or a
Provide the person with ID jewelry.
Consider having the person carry or wear an electronic
tracking GPS device that helps manage location.
the person does wander, search the immediate area for no more
than 15 minutes before calling 911. Report to police that a
person with Alzheimer’s disease is missing. Request a Mattie’s
Call be issued.
tips, go the