Project Lifesaver helps search for wandering Alzheimer's patients

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJanuary 7, 2014 

I am responding to the Dec. 8, 2013, article on "Suffering from Alzheimer's, GA man fatally shot." In this same month there have been three more deaths from those who wander, one in North Vancouver, B.C., one in Longview, Wash., and the latest in Issaquah, Wash. This saddens me very much.

The tendency to wander is prevalent among people with Alzheimer's disease and other dementia-related disorders, as well as autism and Down Syndrome. It is estimated that 60 percent of people with Alzheimer's disease will wander and become lost - statistically, many will wander repeatedly. They are often not even aware that they wandered and are even lost.

There is an increased vulnerability if an elderly Alzheimer's patient is outdoors for more than 24 hours and the chance of survival drops to 50 percent due to the risk of exposure or hypothermia if they are not found within 12 hours. A lost person with Alzheimer's disease or other dementia-related disease or injury represents a critical medical emergency.

Please remember that the wanderer's inability or unwillingness to communicate can be frustrating for both caregivers and searchers alike. The person might not call out for help or respond when their name is called. Traditional search methods rely heavily on the ability of the lost person to respond to searchers when they call. When this ability doesn't exist or the person chooses not to respond, search efforts are time consuming and have the potential to take a tragic turn.

In 2003, through a grant from the Harborview Lion's Club, we at the Alzheimer Society of Washington, in collaboration with the Whatcom County Sheriff's Office, have been able to introduce a tracking system known as "Project Lifesaver." This program is designed to provide a safety net for the most vulnerable citizens in our community.

After submitting a personalized profile, each person in the Project Lifesaver program is provided a one-ounce electronic bracelet that emits a unique radio signal 24 hours a day. Each bracelet is identified with an individual frequency and is linked to its specific profile. This radio frequency then guides the search and rescue team towards the location of the bracelet-wearer if they wander or get lost. When a participant wanders anywhere in Whatcom County, a call to 911 by the caregiver will trigger a rapid response by a specialized team within the Whatcom County Sheriff's Office and local search and rescue volunteers. A search to locate that participant's unique radio signal is started as soon as possible.

The personalized profile is completed by the caregiver and is designed to provide certain specific information that will be useful to the search and rescue team. Besides personal data (preferred name, prior addresses, former place of work and occupation), and a physical description, the profile gives insight as to personality, habits and life experiences such as: How does the participant respond to being physically hurt (cry, shout, hide, bite or strike-out)? Do they talk to strangers? Do they talk to police officers or firefighters (or do they get agitated by uniforms)? Do they walk regularly in their neighborhood? Cross streets? Understand traffic lights? Do they usually stay on established trails or walkways? Is there a history of trying to hide or avoid being found? Do they sleep often and anywhere during the day? Do they have knowledge of local area? Military experience? Can they distinguish between day and night or seasons of the year? Oriented to time, place and self? Recognize familiar persons and faces? Re-live events in their past? Do they have irregular and changing sleeping patterns? Suffer from frequent personality and emotional changes? Are there events or circumstances that can trigger their wandering? Are they comfortable around dogs?

This profile gives the search and rescue team places to begin a search, tools to understand the person who is wandering and helps in gaining the participant's trust -- putting them and their care partner at ease for the journey home.

Another reality is that being a family caregiver is a difficult task. A caregiver's responsibility is enormous and can be draining; the situation can be intensified when the person being cared for begins to wander.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kathy Sitker is the executive director of the Bellingham-based Alzheimer Society of Washington.

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