Dementia patient IDs give peace of mind
Safe Return project helps locate sufferers who wander
By JoNel Aleccia
November 10, 2006
There's a reason so few people are signed up for the Safe Return program sponsored by the Alzheimer's Association in the Inland Northwest.
And it has nothing to do with the effectiveness of the project that helps locate dementia sufferers when they wander.
Just ask Danna Harris, a North Idaho woman whose husband, Chuck Harris, went missing one winter night from their Hayden home.
"I've never been so scared in my life," recalled Harris, 71. "As soon as I picked up the phone to call 911, it rang. It was the Alzheimer's Association saying my husband had been found."
Clearly, she said, the slim metal bracelet imprinted with the toll-free contact number saved Chuck's life.
But even now, more than a year after the death of the former Kootenai County commissioner and prominent Coeur d'Alene businessman, Danna Harris remembers how hard it was to admit her husband needed help.
"People think, 'Oh, no, they aren't going to get that bad,' or 'It's going to reverse itself,'" Harris said. "But you might as well get it through your head that it is a possibility."
That frank message is aimed at the families of the estimated 8,000 to 10,000 people in Spokane County and 36,000 regionally diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease or other dementia disorders.
Of those, only about 370 are signed up for the local Safe Return program, said Joel Loiacono, executive director of the Inland Northwest Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association.
Part of the problem is education, said Loiacono, whose nonprofit agency serves 23 counties with an annual budget of about $180,000. But part of the problem is the denial that often accompanies diagnosis of devastating, degenerative brain disorders.
"We want our spouse or our parent to be the way they were," he said.
"Some people say, 'My loved one doesn't need one of those.' But what we can say is six out of 10 people will wander."
Spokane police are called at least once a week to help find a person with dementia who has left home, said Cpl. Tom Lee, the department spokesman. Of 385 adult missing person calls logged this year, about half involved such cases, he added.
In the 10 years since the Safe Return program was started locally, six people have been recovered, including Danna Harris' husband. Nationwide, program officials field 6,000 calls for help each year.
Chuck Harris' name and photograph were submitted to a national database with an identification number that was etched onto the bracelet he wore. He disappeared on a cold night in January 2005. When he knocked on a neighbor's door a few blocks from his home, the neighbor noticed the bracelet and called the toll-free number.
"It was just a godsend the way it happened," Danna Harris said.
In the more than two years since Bob Vervaeke was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, the 65-year-old Spokane man has never been lost. But his wife, Jo Vervaeke, 64, signed up for the Safe Return program last March after a scare in a Seattle shopping mall.
Bob Vervaeke, a former associate dean at Spokane Community College, needed to use the restroom; his wife waited outside. When it was her turn, Jo Vervaeke told him: "Honey, you need to wait right here."
"When I came out, I remember thinking, 'My God, what if he's wandered away?'" she recalled. "If I ever do lose track of him, I would be panicked."
Safe Return provides identification tags for the caregiver as well as the person who needs care.
"In case something happens to me, they'll know there's someone waiting for me at home," she said.
"It's been a source of comfort for me."
The $40 initial fee and $20 annual cost is small compared with the peace of mind the program offers, caregivers said.
Before she joined Safe Return, Danna Harris worried that if her husband became lost and something happened to him, she'd never forgive herself.
After he got his bracelet and she got her necklace, she said she felt she'd done everything she could to protect him.
Still, making the decision to sign up marked a turning point in her husband's illness, Harris said.
"Once you do that, you have admitted to yourself that your relative is not going to get better," she said. "Once I admitted that, I felt better."