A frail, elderly woman clad only in a thin cotton housecoat was found after several hours of searching. Living in a small trailer on her family’s property, she had disappeared – the first time she had been reported as missing.
She was finally found, having wandered some distance down a lane through the woods to her old home. She had walked out of her door in pursuit of the past.
The first responders who located her returned her to care of EMTs and a tearful, relieved family. She was disoriented, tired, dehydrated and scratched from underbrush.
This true incident happened several years ago in another state, but is an example of the challenges faced everywhere by caregivers and family members – often the same people – who deal with individuals stricken with Alzheimer’s, dementia or other mental dysfunction disorders.
According to the National Institute on Aging (NIA), nearly 5.5 million Americans, mostly 65 and older, “may have dementia caused by Alzheimer’s.” It’s considered the sixth – and maybe as high as the third – leading cause of death in older people.
A decrease in cognitive abilities, which includes memory and reasoning, often leads to the act of wandering.
The Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office has been using Project Lifesaver since 2012 to locate at-risk people. The system has been used successfully at least 10 times, according to BCSO spokesman Maj. Bob Bromage.
Founded in 1999 in Chesapeake, Va., the program uses state-of-the-art technology to find persons who wander and become lost. Bromage said BCSO implemented the program because the agency “felt it was a good fit for our service population. This particular search program was chosen because of ease of program implementation, and it was shown to be effective.”
Project Lifesaver is free for families of the clients and is not a county expenditure.
“It’s paid for by donations from private individuals and companies in our area,” said Bromage. “There is no direct cost to Beaufort County.”
The technology is a personalized Project Lifesaver wristband that has a one-ounce battery-operated transmitter that emits an automatic tracking signal every second, 24 hours a day and is traced by a receiver. It is designed to be worn all the time.
When a search has to be made, the signal can be tracked by those specially trained personnel on the ground or in the air.
“It is not waterproof, but it is water resistant,” said Bromage. “It is OK to shower with it, although bathing with it is not recommended.”
Implementation is carried out by sheriff’s deputies who are specially trained to communicate with someone who has dementia. According to program information on the BCSO website, Project Lifesaver emphasizes the relationships between deputies and participants before an incident.
Following a person’s acceptance into the program, deputies will make a home visit to install the wristband and give caregivers a thorough overview of the process. They then make monthly in-home visits to inspect and maintain the equipment. There are currently 15 trained deputies in Beaufort County; the number of clients fluctuates and is based on need.
“As long as families provide documentation justifying enrollment in the program, signing up a client up is fast,” said Bromage. Documentation would include a history of a memory disorder with wandering incidents.
According to the U.S. Census 2017 American Community Survey, approximately 118 million South Carolinians and 51,000 Beaufort County residents are age 60 and older, with a number of gated communities and residences catering to retirees. With early symptoms of Alzheimer’s appearing in some people in their mid-60s, according to NIA, the need for such a program is growing.
Sandy Milliken, executive director of Sun City Hilton Head’s Staying Connected, agrees. The volunteer organization comprises residents helping other residents with transportation, home chores, minor repairs and relief for caregivers.
Project Lifesaver is one of the many resources available in the organization’s Resource Hub in the Yemassee Craft Center.
“That is one of our recommendations if a caregiver is needing support, such as dealing with an individual wandering,” Milliken said. “What I would say is that the burden is heavy on family caregivers, and using any of the community resources that they can possibly use – support groups, tracking systems – is critical to their own health and well-being as they care for their loved one.”
For more information and to apply for Project Lifesaver, call BSCO deputy Sgt. Meredith Florencio at 843-255-3419.
“If a loved one experiences a wandering incident due to a memory disorder, their families are encouraged to call to see if the program is a viable option,” said Bromage.
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.