Loyal dog helps rescue lost woman with dementia
What began as an ordinary Tuesday for Sherry Noppe of Katy, Texas, evolved into terror for her and her family. After lunch with her husband and visiting the hair salon, Sherry, 63 — who had been diagnosed with dementia just a month prior — went for an early afternoon walk on May 3 with the family dog, Max. Hours later at the height of the Texas heat, the pair still hadn't returned and their family began to worry.
"My parents have lived in the same neighborhood forever," says Sherry's son, Justin Noppe. "She went along the same streets she'd taken for years. Normally, going for a walk like that shouldn't have been a big deal."
The family grew increasingly frightened as the hours stretched into days with no sign of Sherry or Max.
Losing the way
Everyone living with Alzheimer’s or another dementia is at risk for wandering. We have tips to help reduce the risk.
As the disease progresses, Alzheimer's and other dementias will impact an individual's ability to recognize familiar places and faces. It's common for a person to wander away from home or become lost or confused about their location, even in the early stage of the disease. Six in 10 people living with dementia will wander at least once and many do so repeatedly. Although common, wandering can be dangerous — even life-threatening — and the stress of this risk weighs heavily on caregivers and family.
"The thing with wandering or getting lost is that you never know when it's going to happen," says Monica Moreno, Alzheimer's Association senior director of Care and Support. "Unfortunately, what we do know is that if not found within 24 hours, up to half of those individuals will suffer serious injury or worse."
A hero's bark
For days, the Noppe family, local law enforcement and hundreds of community members searched the area where Sherry and Max were last seen. Although most individuals who wander on foot are found within one or two miles of where they disappeared, Sherry's neighborhood backed up to nearly 8,000 acres of forest, complicating the search efforts.
"For someone living with dementia, they may not have the ability to retrace their steps and get themselves out of the situation, no matter how close to home they are," Moreno says.
Optimism for Sherry's safe return was diminished by triple-digit temperatures, thunderstorms and numerous false reports of sightings.
In the early stage of Alzheimer's, most people function independently. Caregivers should provide support and companionship, and help plan for the future.
We Can Help
"We felt hopeless," Justin says. "I was thinking the worst of it. Max actually belonged to my brother, who died two years ago, so I was thinking, here we are again, about to lose my mom and what we still had of my brother."
On the third day, a group of search-and-rescue dogs alerted volunteers to a scent in the forest. The team followed the trail, turning off all vehicles and equipment so they could listen for any sounds. In the distance, they heard a dog's bark.
Following it, they found Sherry and her loyal companion Max sitting together in the brush.
"Max saved her life," Justin says. "He's our hero."
Happy Mother's Day
Despite spending three days exposed to the elements, Sherry and Max sustained only minor cuts and dehydration. The family's reunion came at a serendipitous time: Mother's Day weekend.
"It [was] a blessing to us to bring our mother home on Mother's Day … it was very special," Justin says. "She recovered well and is in high spirits. And Max, that dog had no leash and no collar and stayed by her side for three days. That just shows you the loyalty the dog has."
Max enjoyed local fame as the town hero, receiving free toys, steak dinners and the status of an honorary fire department dog. His efforts also earned him the title of a certified service dog, which he will use to help Sherry in an official capacity.
"They already had a special connection," Justin says of Sherry and Max. "It's obvious that they just love each other a lot."