Those apt to wander are given an invisible lifeline

Howard Duell liked to take walks. One day he didn’t come home.

His wife called police and after a six-hour search, the Edmonds man was safely returned.

That night, Virginia Duell enrolled her husband, now 79, in Project Lifesaver, a program run by the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office that helps find vulnerable people like Duell who suffer from cognitive disorders.

People with dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, Down syndrome, autism and other disabilities can become confused and lost in even the most familiar situations.

Since the April death of a Snohomish grandmother who wandered from her home, interest in Project Lifesaver has surged, officials said.

“It seems like that when something like that happens it wakes people up to do something,” said Ray Baron, a Snohomish County sheriff’s volunteer who helps manage Project Lifesaver.

There are now nearly 90 people in the county who wear specially equipped radio-beacon bracelets that allow searchers to quickly track them. In the program’s history, searchers have always found those who were wearing the beacon alive. It usually takes about 15 minutes.

Last summer, after Duell had begun wearing the Project Lifesaver bracelet, he slipped away several times. Deputies were summoned, and in about a half-hour he was home.

“It was wonderful,” Virginia Duell, 79, said. “It was a relief knowing that they would find him. He wasn’t going to be tangled up in blackberry bushes somewhere and unable to get out.”

Howard Duell’s condition has since deteriorated and he was recently moved to a secure nursing home.

Vulnerable people wandering away is a growing problem nationally as the population ages and people live longer, experts said. At the same time, more young people are being diagnosed with autism and similar cognitive disorders.

Researchers aren’t sure why, but about 90 percent of autistic children are prone to wandering and 70 percent of adults with dementia are likely to roam.

When vulnerable people do wander, the results can be tragic.

On April 29, two days after 93-year-old Mildred Bird disappeared, search teams found her body about 400 yards from her Snohomish home.

“It’s really tough on everybody, starting with family and friends, and right through to the search and rescue community,” said sheriff’s Sgt. Danny Wikstrom, who oversees search and rescue operations.

When deputies get called out to a missing elderly person or missing disabled child, they treat it like an urgent medical emergency.

“We go, go, go, go, hard, hard, hard, hard,” Wikstrom said.

The statistics explain why. If frail, elderly people aren’t found within a day, the search typically becomes a recovery operation, Wikstrom said.

When Bird disappeared, dozens of searchers saturated the neighborhood looking for her. Police dogs, trained trackers, the sheriff’s office helicopter and search and rescue volunteers worked two long days in terrible weather.

“Everyone so desperately wanted to find her alive and bring her home,” Wikstrom said.

A call to action

Although it’s unclear if Bird suffered from a cognitive disorder, Wikstrom and others hope that the tragedy of her death will spur the caretakers of people with Alzheimer’s and other kinds of dementia to consider Project Lifesaver.

In the month since Bird’s death, 11 people have signed up, Baron said.

“That really got the word out,” he said.

In the county program’s seven-year history, people usually enroll at a rate of about one a month. Families and caregivers of people who may wander pay a signup fee and a monthly maintenance charge. In return, they get extra peace of mind.

Several cognitive disorders can cause someone to wander, not just Alzheimer’s. Various forms of dementia, marked by memory loss, disorientation, motor impairment and other symptoms, can be caused by illnesses or simply as the result of old age.

The sheriff’s office keeps a detailed record about each person wearing a bracelet, including their photo and medical profile. The bracelets emit a radio signal that deputies can track. Radio frequency is better for finding people than global positioning systems because there’s no risk that the signal will get lost in heavy brush, remote areas or inside buildings, Baron said.

Wearing a bracelet isn’t a perfect fit for every person who may wander. Some people cut the bracelets off and others can’t tolerate wearing something on their wrists or ankles.

Since Project Lifesaver began in Maryland in 1999, there have been nearly 1,700 searches nationally for people wearing the bracelet. Everyone has been safely returned, said Amber Whittaker, a spokeswoman for the company.

It’s now used by more than 700 agencies in 43 states, the District of Columbia and two Canadian provinces.

And it’s not just for older people.

Lucas Salcedo, 4, wears a Project Lifesaver bracelet. He’s an autistic boy who loves the outdoors, trees, the woods and water, said Jennifer Salcedo, his mom.

The door knobs of their north Snohomish County home have safety features that make opening the door like taking the top off a medicine bottle. The windows typically stay closed and locked.

Still, Lucas’ mom is concerned that he could get out.

“He has no safety awareness and doesn’t really understand danger in any way. He could easily get lost,” she said. “Every time the door is opened, he’s right there waiting.”

If called, Lucas doesn’t answer. The boy doesn’t speak.

Danica Chollar’s son, Aaron, 7, also is autistic. He has run away about seven times.

Aaron is clever, quick, strong and a runner, she said. He’s fascinated by street lines and twice has been found lying in the middle of busy roads.

“He has escaped out of our house numerous times,” she said. “It’s a really common thing for these kids with autism to do.”

Like Lucas, Aaron is nonverbal and wouldn’t respond to shouts and hollers from search teams.

ID bracelets help

Wearing a radio beacon is an important tool in finding people who become lost but it’s not a cure-all, experts said.

In addition to the radio bracelet, an identification bracelet with the person’s name and a contact phone number is a good idea, said Patricia Hunter, a program director with the Alzheimer’s Association of Washington. She said there are about 7,000 Alzheimer patients in Snohomish County.

An ID bracelet can help summon a caretaker quickly if the person is found wandering on a bus or in a crowded area. The radio beacon helps locate someone who might be lost in the woods, tangled up in brush or hidden in a corner of a garage.

Hunter also recommends that caretakers learn how to provide added supervision, lock doors and make the most of alarm systems to keep people indoors.

“They shouldn’t just slap that bracelet on or put on the watch,” she said. “I’d rather see people put 90 percent of their energy into prevention.”

Still, when Project Lifesaver works, it’s rewarding, Baron said.

“It’s exciting for me when you find somebody and they’re well. It makes you feel really good,” he said.

People who wear the bracelet require monthly visits to replace batteries. That can be bittersweet for volunteers, who often become friends with people who are wearing the bracelets, many of whom are nearing the end of their lives.

“You feel bad when people pass away because you develop a relationship with these people,” Baron said. “It’s heartbreaking to see this person gradually fading away.”

Sharon Severson has watched as Alzheimer’s has taken hold of her husband, Harold Severson, 73, of Mill Creek. He wears a Medic Alert bracelet and a Project Lifesaver beacon.

“He can go two houses down and not know where he’s at,” she said.

He likes to take walks and despite efforts to keep doors locked, she doesn’t always know when he slips away.

Now, since he enrolled with Project Lifesaver, she rests easier.

“It’s great to know that he has that on,” she said.

Reporter Jackson Holtz: 425-339-3437 or jholtz@heraldnet.com.

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