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Lost but found: New program in St. Peters helps locate people with dementia who stray from home

The hot, unforgiving Missouri sun beats down on a lost man. Although just a few miles from home, the man does not know where he is and has no recollection of how he got to where he is. He stands, scared and confused, pondering how he lost his way, but he still can't muster a single memory of his journey there.

Just a few miles away, the man's family members search frantically for him. They enlist the services of several people to search, but still cannot find the missing man. Several heat-stricken hours pass by as the now small army of seekers continue the hunt. After many useful tips and leads, the family is finally reunited with its lost member.

With millions of Americans suffering from Alzheimer's disease, dementia and other debilitating cognitive diseases, the scenario above may be all too familiar for many families.

In response, the St. Peters Police Department has established the Family Locator Services Program, which helps return residents suffering from dementia-related illnesses to their families or caregivers in a timely fashion.

"This program will really help families and lead to a shorter return time," said Lt. Tim Snavely, who heads St. Peters' Crisis Intervention Team and helped create the program. "It will eliminate some worries."

The program started after a St. Peters resident, who was concerned about a neighbor suffering from dementia, asked city government to consider it.

The program uses a database that can be accessed by police officers. If officers see an individual who appears confused or suffering from dementia, they can access information about registered participants on their in-car computers. With this resource, the officer can try to identify the person and contact the appropriate loved one or caregiver for a safe return home.

"The immediate identification would mean for a quick delivery back to the loved one," Snavely said. "This makes the officer ready for the next emergency call."

Snavely said the program was easy to incorporate because the police department already has an accessible database with residents' information. The department simply added a new folder to participants' files. Because of this, the program is completely free.

Interested residents can register by filling out a form at the St. Peters Police Department, 1020 Grand Teton Dr. or they can call 636-278-2222 for more information or to request inhome help in filling out the information. The form asks specific questions about the impaired person's physical appearance, such as height, weight and hair color. Residents can also submit a photo.

While the idea seems new, the Alzheimer's Association has offered a similar program for years. MedicAlert + Safe Return gives 24-hour nationwide coverage to its participants, who can be identified by a MedicAlert bracelet or necklace. The service is offered at $30 a month.

"People suffering from dementia wandering off is not just a problem in St. Louis," said Carroll Rodriguez, director of public policy and communication for the St. Louis Alzheimer's Association. "It's a problem everywhere."

According to Rodriguez, the success rate for MedicAlert +Safe Return is high, and the association has seen many local systems like St. Peters' program become effective.

For the St. Peters program to be helpful, the database needs to remain small, Snavely said. To prevent it from growing too large, caregivers will be contacted after one year and asked if information should be kept in the database. If there is no longer a need, it will be purged from the records.

"I don't want this to become too big because then it may be ineffective," Snavely said.

According to Rodriguez, effectiveness is crucial when it comes to locating those suffering from dementia.

"To save lives, it's important to act quickly," she said.

Patrick Sullivan, a student at the University of Kentucky, is an intern at the Beacon. This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.

Patrick Sullivan
Patrick Sullivan was a student at the University of Kentucky and an intern for the STL Beacon in Fall 2010

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