Sad Side of Silver Alerts

We invite you to read the article below by the Palm Beach Post on the importance of the Silver Alert.

Sad Side of Silver Alerts: When Older Drivers Can't Find Their Way Home

By: Julius Whigham II - Palm Beach Post Staff Writer



Police tracked down 81-year-old Melvin John Mondry nearly 200 miles from his home. He climbed into a Toyota Camry on the night of May 13 and drove all the way from Palm Beach Gardens to Clermont, where officers found the Alzheimer’s patient unharmed the next morning.

Emilio Diaz took a shorter trip in March. The 78-year-old man — reported to suffer from dementia — motored off from his home in Delray Beach on March 15 and was found unharmed by police in Miami, 50 miles south, the following day, after Silver Alert had been issued.

Mondry and Diaz are not alone. They are among more than a dozen drivers in Palm Beach County with Alzheimer’s or other cognitive illnesses who have gone missing since January 2015. And more are likely to join them as families learn to keep older relatives safe from beloved activities — like driving a car — as they struggle with these ailments.

From January through the end of May, seven Silver Alerts were issued for drivers in Palm Beach County, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The alerts are issued whenever a person older than 60 — especially those with Alzheimer’s dementia or other mental disabilities — goes missing.

Video: How do officers train for Silver Alerts? Watch one agency’s training film.

In 2015, there were 15 such alerts in Palm Beach County, one of the most active in Florida in reporting missing drivers. Since 2011, when the state’s Silver Alert bill was signed into law, more than 100 drivers in Palm Beach County have been tracked and recovered through the program, according to the FDLE statistics.

“That’s because law enforcement takes this seriously,” said Mary Barnes, executive director for Alzheimer’s Community Care in West Palm Beach, who estimated there are 60,000 patients in Palm Beach County with Alzheimer’s or related illness.

Barnes estimated that men make up about 75 to 80 percent of those cognitive disorders who go lost while driving. While more women are continuing to drive as they grow older, she said, the majority of those who continue to drive in their late 70s and 80s are men.

“That love for the car keys is a long-term relationship,” she said, adding that the ability to drive “is the sign of independence.”

For those with cognitive disorders, what may seem like a routine drive — such as a quick trip to the grocery store or the post office — can become complicated in situations where they are forced to take an unfamiliar route and panic sets in.

“There’s always that time where something distracts them and they have to take a detour, or there’s an accident and they have to go down a different street,” Barnes said. “Then they start panicking. The more they panic, the more lost they become.”

Such instances can raise the difficult question of when to tell a person that it’s time to stop driving. The decision will often fall to a caregiver, and taking away the keys often is wrenching, especially for the driver’s children.

“This is their father,” she said. “It’s hard for children to have be the villain, so to speak.”

Video: What happens when older drivers wander off further on foot? This video teaches law enforcement how to handle it.

One Palm Beach County woman, who asked that she not be identified, faced such a decision earlier this year when her husband, who suffers from the moderate stage of Alzheimer’s, became lost after leaving for what was supposed to be a quick errand. He was located by authorities in another county several hours later.

The woman said the incident forced her to tell her husband that he could no longer drive. She described the moment as being particularly painful for both of them.

“He was angry,” she said. “He felt OK. He still is a safe driver. His long-term memory is good. But when you get lost, (you’re) very vulnerable. That’s really the issue, when he can’t figure out how to get home.”

Barnes stressed that the ability to drive is not a matter of age, but of cognitive function, noting some that some patients are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in their 50s.

The early stages of cognitive impairment would not prevent someone from driving, said Dr. Courtney Spilker, a neuropsychologist at St. Mary’s Medical Center in West Palm Beach, but she cautions that caregivers should closely monitor for changes in behavior and driving ability.

“When someone has a mild dementia, it doesn’t preclude them from the driving. It depends on what areas of deficits they have,” Spilker said.

In circumstances when someone does become lost, it’s important to contact authorities or call 911 right away and to know the make of car and the license plate number, Barnes said. Online tracking systems such as Lo-Jack also can be helpful.

“Don’t go out and look for them yourself,” she said. “Especially in a car, they’re probably long gone by then.”


SILVER ALERTS (Issued in Florida since 2011):

 Year Palm Beach County Florida 
 2016 (through May 30)  7 97
 2015  15 232
 2014  16 203
 2013  20 162
 2012  21 175
 2011  29 162