UMass Medical School and Executive Office of Elder Affairs kick off program to help find missing seniors with dementia

January 14, 2015

When a senior with dementia is reported missing, time is of the essence. In an effort to speed up police response time, UMass Medical School and the Executive Office of Elder Affairs have launched a program that will establish registries of vulnerable residents with key information authorities will need to locate them.

The Office of Program Development within Commonwealth Medicine helped kick off a program designed to improve the success of the Massachusetts Silver Alert Community Response System. The state’s Silver Alert law, which took effect in 2010, sets up procedures and protocols for public safety and human services agencies to follow when seniors with dementia are reported missing.

Local police departments and elder services agencies in the 12 communities participating in the program are now working with families to collect recent photographs and information about seniors with dementia who might one day become lost. Pre-registering seniors with dementia will enable the local police department to begin searching for them immediately if they are reported missing instead of having to wait while the information is obtained.

Pamela MacLeod, a senior program development associate in the Office of Program Development and the Executive Office of Elder Affairs, worked to identify stakeholders in the 12 participating communities, bring them together and facilitate meetings to kick off the program. The participating communities are: Amesbury, Gloucester, Melrose, Dennis, Duxbury, Yarmouth, Dedham, Norwood, Taunton, Westwood, Ludlow and Pittsfield.

Melrose Police Chief Michael L. Lyle, who is a member of the Planning Workgroup that oversees the program, said the program allows police to be proactive instead of reactive, which increases the chances of locating a missing person.

“Time is the priority,” Lyle said.

In the Silver Alert Community Response Program, local police obtain information from a caregiver or family member about a senior who has dementia. The information, such as a photograph, physical description, car registration, favorite places to go and nickname, is entered into the police department’s database. Lyle said the Silver Alert data could be accessed by police departments across the state through Coplink, a statewide system that allows law enforcement to share information.

Having key data about those with dementia will reduce police response time, and in turn, may save lives. In many missing persons cases families and caregivers search before they call police for help. Lyle said they should call police first and designate someone to speak with responding law enforcement officers when they arrive on the scene.

The participating communities were broken into four regional groups. Meetings were held in the four regions in August to kick off the program. The program is now being run by the local police departments.

MacLeod said the way police search for someone with dementia differs from the way they would search for people who don’t have dementia.

“Someone with dementia may be frightened and confused, may hide, and may not ask for help,” she said.

Lyle said the benefits of the program are that it is a no-cost budget item for police departments and that it can give family members or caretakers of those with serious cognitive disorders peace of mind.

“My ultimate goal is to apply this program for anyone missing with a cognitive disorder,” Lyle said.

MacLeod noted that the Planning Workgroup, which includes police and state officials, and representatives of the Alzheimer’s Association, Massachusetts/New Hampshire Chapter, looks forward to expanding the program to other communities.

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