Stephanie Weimer thought she had all the bases covered.
As primary caregiver for her father—diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease—she always knew his whereabouts thanks to a tracking device on his cell phone. About two years ago, he drove himself to a routine doctor’s appointment and became disoriented while driving home.
“He was lost, and the tracking device didn’t work because his cell phone had gone dead,” Weimer said. “I called the police right away, and I was trying to figure out his mindset—where he would go, while my sister was running around looking for him.”
Luckily, George C. Weimer Jr. stopped for gas. The station attendant sensed something was wrong, and he asked George to call his family. Stephanie says her phone rang while police officers were sitting around her kitchen table, piecing together a search plan. Thankfully, father and daughter were quickly reunited, but the situation served as a wake-up call for additional protective measures to be put into place.
The Weimers, residents of Silver Spring Township, now have George listed on the township police department’s Alzheimer’s/dementia registry.
“It most definitely gives me peace of mind,” Stephanie said. “Now, the police have everything they need—his picture, his information and my contact information.”
Coincidentally, George spent 44 years as a volunteer with Silver Spring EMS. Now, it’s his turn to let the community take care of him.
According to statistics compiled by the Alzheimer’s Association, six in 10 people with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia are prone to wandering.
“It may be that they don’t remember their name, their address, or they may become disoriented,” said Jan Reisinger of the association’s Greater Pennsylvania Chapter. “It can happen at any time during the stages of the disease. And a more startling statistic—if wandering residents are not found within 24 hours, 61 percent are found deceased.”
Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior.
About 5.5 million Americans currently live with the disease, and, by 2050, as many as 16 million Americans could be affected. Pennsylvania ranks fifth in terms of the number of Alzheimer’s cases. Reisinger said the disease most commonly affects those 65 and older. However, others display symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer’s in their 40s or 50s.
Due to Alzheimer’s prevalence and the nature of the disease, police departments are seeing an increase in cases involving missing and/or found patients. Identifying and safely returning those found can be a frustrating task, according to Sgt. Keith Stambaugh of Silver Spring Township’s police department. That’s why he created the township’s registry, with an easy-to-use online submission form.
“When someone goes missing, family members are scrambling to assemble information for us—it’s difficult to do under stress, and it takes much longer,” Stambaugh said. “The time that the registry could save could make a difference, if we can find them before they get too far away or in a bad situation.”
Stambaugh said it took hours for his department to track down an Alzheimer’s patient from Silver Spring Township recently. Finally, from a cell phone ping, they located the man, already hundreds of miles away, driving south on I-95 in Virginia.
“The family didn’t think this would happen, and he was not on the registry,” said Stambaugh.
In another case, Mechanicsburg police found a man on foot, wandering on a cold night. Stambaugh heard the county dispatch, including the man’s name.
“He was on our registry, we were able to provide an emergency contact to Mechanicsburg police, and they were able to return him quickly and safely,” Stambaugh said. “That’s exactly the reason it was created.”
Stambaugh said he welcomes families throughout the greater Harrisburg area to use Silver Spring’s registry, regardless of where they live. The township also maintains a registry for those affected by autism.
He said he feels compelled to make a difference in the lives of families affected by Alzheimer’s and dementia. His location, he said, gives him a unique vantage point. Silver Spring is the fastest-growing township in Cumberland County, and Cumberland is the fastest-growing county in the state. Meanwhile, numerous 55-and-over communities are in and around his jurisdiction.
“I’d like to make it a county-level registry that could be accessed by all police departments, with county dispatchers having access to registry information,” he said. “Going a step further, if we got PennDOT on board and were able to put a flag for Alzheimer’s on drivers’ licenses, if they [Alzheimer’s patients] end up in another state, that would show up when we run the license.”
Now, Stambaugh said, he just needs more people to join him in the effort.
“The bottom line is, these ideas, put into practice, would mean a lot less work for everybody, to get them home safely,” he said.
For more information about the Greater Pennsylvania Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, call 717-651-5020 or visit www.alz.org/pa.