State needs to join others in creating ‘Amber Alert’ system for elders

The heartbreaking death of 89-year-old Everett resident Ethel O’Neil brings into focus the challenge of tracking seniors diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. O’Neil, who exhibited early signs of dementia, disappeared while driving to the Everett Mall. Her body was discovered Tuesday in her car in a blackberry patch off a private road near Lake Stevens, almost a month after she was reported missing.

O’Neil’s agonizing narrative crystallizes a nightmare scenario for family members of Alzheimer’s patients. Sixty percent of those diagnosed with the disease wander off at least once. Families mistakenly assume that, after decades in the same house, their mom or uncle will be able to navigate home. But in addition to losing a sense of direction and the anxiety associated with becoming lost, those with dementia often experience limited visual recognition. Walk out to the driveway to pick up the paper and peer back: That’s not the house I grew up in, they say.

And so they meander, searching for the farmhouse or apartment that was never on that street or in that city to begin with.

The cognitive decline of a parent or spouse not only stirs anguish but also denial. Families must take affirmative steps to ensure a loved one’s health and safety, including snagging the car keys (best facilitated by the family doctor.)

Dementia sufferers are also easy marks for fraud and abuse. “Vulnerable” is the operative adjective.

As The Herald’s Eric Stevick reports, the O’Neil tragedy throws light on what the state and authorities are doing. Washington, always in the vanguard, has been curiously slow to take action on a statewide Alzheimer’s strategy.

“Wandering behavior has become increasingly familiar. Yet Washington is not prepared to deal with this emerging public health threat,” InvestigateWest’s Jason Alcorn wrote last year. “Few police departments have policies or training to educate officers on Alzheimer’s or dementia. An Amber Alert-like system set up in 2009 to help find wandering people is under used, its coordinator acknowledges, and bills to create a formal Silver Alert system like those in more than 20 other states foundered in both houses of the state Legislature.”

There is a remedy. State Sen. Barbary Bailey introduced legislation in past sessions to create a Silver Alert system; it’s an inspired effort that needs to be revisited. Oregon and California have Silver Alerts, and data illustrate that it works. The only criticism is whether statewide call outs diminish the force of Amber Alerts, but this isn’t a zero-sum game. Enhance the existing system or follow the lead of 26 other states and establish a Silver Alert program in Washington.

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