Sheila Spencer will never forget the April morning she went to check on her husband, James, and found his favorite chair sitting empty.
She didn’t know when he left or whether he could find his way home again.
James, 79, lives with dementia and can’t always remember how to navigate the neighborhood.
The Tyler Pipe retiree tends to wander and enjoys picking up cans and other goodies along the way.
“When I call the police, they would usually find him at Rose Hill Cemetery, at night,” she said.
But on this day, James didn’t head to the cemetery - he apparently headed north, toward Interstate 20, unbeknownst to his wife or anyone else.
Mrs. Spencer waited at home crying and praying as authorities issued an alert for his whereabouts.
Eleven miles away, another family was about to make a startling discovery - an elderly man standing in their backyard.
It was James - cold, exhausted, confused and lost.
His wife was still waiting outside for him to return when a car pulled up in the driveway. He had been gone more than seven hours.
“I see this jacket and said, ‘Oh Lord, he’s home, he’s home,’” she said, eyes glistening with emotion.
It’s common for people with dementia to forget things long familiar to them - family, friends, even themselves.
The incurable disease can strike anyone, mostly older people. It attacks cells in the brain, initially affecting short-term memory and making it difficult to retain new information, such as recognizing familiar landmarks and routes.
Statistically, a patient’s chances of survival drop 50 percent if not located within 24 hours, according to data from the Alzheimer’s Alliance of Smith County.
But new tracking technology, offered through the Alliance in partnership with local law enforcement, is helping reunite separated loved ones quicker than traditional means of searching terrain by foot.
The technology is offered in the form of a bracelet that contains a small tracking device.
James recently was outfitted with his own bracelet, after authorities helped connect the couple to the Alzheimer’s Alliance, which helps caregivers locate resources to help cope with the disease.
If James gets lost again, special machines maintained by Tyler Police and Smith County Sheriff’s Office should help rescuers locate him sooner.
The device works in a fashion similar to a metal detector, which emits a signal that grows stronger as it nears the intended target.
Trackers are $300 each and sold through the Alliance as part of an international effort called Project Lifesaver.
Local authorities believe this unique program can do as the name suggests, save lives.
“Seventy percent of people with Alzheimer’s will wander,” said Stephanie Taylor, executive director of the Alzheimer’s Association of Smith County, a nonprofit supported almost exclusively with private donations.
Trackers can save lives, but also free up manpower and soften costs associated with extended searches, which generally cost about $1,500 an hour for law enforcement personnel.
Typical searches are about nine hours, amounting to $13,500 per emergency.
“It takes a lot of manpower to conduct a search,” Ms. Taylor said. “With a bracelet, they (patients) can be found within 30 minutes with a 100 percent success rate.”
A big downfall to the success of the program is enrollment - not that many people are participating, only about 25 in Smith County.
“That’s a very small number, considering there are about 4,000 in Smith County with a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s,” Ms. Taylor said.
About 1,000 of those patients are considered immobile or living in a condition that does not warrant a bracelet, leaving a gap of about 3,000 people who could benefit from the technology.
The Alliance cannot fund them all.
“We have very limited resources,” Ms. Taylor said. “We can’t scholarship everyone.”
With donations, the Alliance can grow the program so people who need a bracelet will have one.
CARING FOR THE LOST
Responding to reports of lost patients is not new for David Biggs, one of two crisis intervention officers working for the Smith County Sheriff’s Office.
He’s among the responders who turn out to help when people get lost or become overwhelmed in mental crisis.
“It’s rewarding to be able to help others,” he said. “Sometimes people don’t know how to help themselves.”
When somebody has dementia, they generally lack the cognitive abilities to take care of themselves, the officer said, adding, “They lose the ability to recognize time and space.”
In some cases, there is little difference between a lost child and someone living with dementia. Both are emergencies, but older people frequently have secondary conditions, such as diabetes and heart problems.
When someone wanders away, a call to 9-1-1 triggers a series of events.
Authorities will ask for critical pieces of information, such as a patient’s date of birth, medication list, description, as well as favorite objects and places.
Law enforcement and volunteer fire departments are summoned to help in the response, which can involve a variety of resources, such as helicopters and search dogs until the patient can be located.
In some instances, the search ends with heartbreak.
Those found alive may display different types of emotions, ranging from confusion and fear to relief. Some have no reaction at all.
Biggs said he’ll never forget the first time he was summoned to help search for a lost person.
A woman with early onset dementia went fishing one fall afternoon and got lost in the woods. She was missing about six hours before authorities could locate her.
“She left about 4 p.m. and we got the call about 8 (p.m.),” he said. “She was frazzled and happy to be back … she was still carrying her fishing bucket.”
A tracking device could have been helpful, he said, possibly reducing the amount of time she was alone and wandering in the dark woods.
Biggs appears well suited for his role, one that might be in jeopardy. The Andrews Center, which funds the two positions at the sheriff's office, earlier this month confirmed it was cutting funding for the positions effective Sept. 30. However, County Judge Nathaniel Moran said he is in talks with Sheriff Larry Smith to see what can be done to keep crisis intervention team trained deputies on duty within the sheriff's office.
For Biggs, the parts of the job dealing with the elderly and those with dementia hit close to home. His grandmother suffers from dementia.
She doesn’t remember the events that happened late in her life, only those spent growing up in Arkansas, he said.
“I enjoy hearing the old stories,” he said. “I just never know which ones are real and which ones aren’t.”
It’s everyone’s responsibly to care each other and look out for one another, the officer said, expressing support for tracking bracelets on dementia patients.
“You want to take care of your loved ones,” Biggs said. “It’s more insurance if you get a bracelet.”
James’ wife, who keeps an eagle eye on her husband’s whereabouts, agrees.
She said she’s sleeping a little easier these days, knowing the technology is there to locate James if he slips away again.
“This is my husband and I’m going to take care of him,” she said. “He knows he’s losing his independence … I’m willing to keep him as long as I can.”
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