Golden years gone missing: Dementia and SLO County’s elderly

In the past seven years, four San Luis Obispo County seniors with dementia left their homes and have not been seen since. Detectives and loved ones searching for them say it is as if they simply vanished.

Their absence leaves a wake of frustration, unanswered questions and loss.

The recent disappearance of San Luis Obispo resident George Carpenter has filled his family and friends with anguish. Despite a rigorous search of the county and an online social network of more than 1,000 people spreading the word of Carpenter’s disappearance throughout the West, no leads have emerged.

There are 6,000 people who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in San Luis Obispo County. Of those, 3,600 have the potential to wander from their home or caregiver without the ability to return. National statistics indicate that if not found within 24 hours, those who walk away have a 50 percent chance of being seriously injured or dying.

About 40 percent of the calls for help received each year by the Sheriff’s Department search-and-rescue team are for people with mental disabilities who have been reported missing. Despite a record of success, not all are found.

In December, Carpenter, 74, drove to Laguna Lake Park; he never returned home and remains missing. In August 2008, Helen Thompson, 81, went for a walk in her Shell Beach neighborhood, something she did daily, and was not heard from again. In June 2007, Janet DeFelice, 88, slipped out of her family’s Templeton home while they slept and never returned. In December 2003, Vern Erno, 82, had been visiting family in Arroyo Grande when he disappeared in San Luis Obispo.

Such missing-person cases are often the most difficult to work on, said sheriff’s Sgt. Mark Maki, who coordinates the search-and-rescue volunteer program.

“There is no way to quantify if a person is going to wander,” Maki said. “These people are the hardest for us to find.”

An inability to feel hunger pangs, exhaustion or dehydration, coupled with a confused sense of time, work against many individuals with dementia. Short-term memory loss makes decade-old memories seem current, abetting their disorientation.

“That is the insidiousness of this disease,” Maki said. “These people cannot self-rescue. They will get into a little ditch, sit there freezing, and someone will walk by them, and they won’t say a word.”

Help not taken

Local resources for family and caretakers of those with dementia are growing, but the participation rate in the available programs is small compared to the number of people diagnosed.

In San Luis Obispo County, known as an enticing retirement area, people age 65 years and older account for 14.8 percent of the county’s population of 265,297, according to the most recent census data. That proportion is about 32 percent higher than California’s 11.2 percent average.

Sara Bartlett, local coordinator of the Central Coast chapter of the National Alzheimer’s Association, said she is filled with sorrow each time she learns of a story like Carpenter’s.

“I want to prevent any other families from going through this,” Bartlett said. “Anyone who has a loved one with dementia that can walk, drive or even wheel fast in a wheelchair should call us to talk about their options.”

An identification program called Safe Return provides dementia patients with a stainless-steel bracelet engraved with an identification number and a toll-free phone number to call if someone finds a person who has wandered off.

In San Luis Obispo County, 360 people are enrolled in the program, which has a 91 percent success rate, according to Bartlett.“Given that six out of 10 people with dementia will likely wander — that is potential for 3,600 people to wander off in our county,” she said.

Family members of those with dementia often struggle with knowing when it is time to intervene, she said.

“We can help with those tough decisions,” Bartlett said.

Bartlett also works closely with a program run by the Sheriff’s Department called Project Lifesaver. The program outfits dementia patients with a battery-operated transmitter bracelet that can be tracked up to eight miles way.

There are 70 clients currently enrolled in the program, Maki said.

The program is voluntary and the bracelets can be removed at any time — making it tricky for caretakers of Alzheimer’s patients who do not want to wear them. To get around that challenge, the transmitter can be kept in the pocket of an often worn jacket or purse, Maki said.

“I honestly thought there would be hundreds of people enrolled by now,” Maki said of the program. “There is so much denial that goes along with dementia that it hinders some people from taking advantage of it.”

Quite a scare

San Luis Obispo resident Marie Mahan enrolled her 87-year-old mother in the Safe Return program several years ago.

But after a recent scare, Mahan also enrolled her mom in the Project Lifesaver program as an added precaution.

Mahan and her mom were at a movie in downtown San Luis Obispo when Mahan slipped out of the theater to use the restroom.

“When I came back, she was just gone,” Mahan said. “I searched the lobby, checked the parking garage where we had parked and had movie staff help me search all of the movie theaters. I was frantic.”

Mahan called the Sheriff’s Department for help, and the deputies quickly found her mom sitting on a bench at some nearby stores.

“She said she was bored and that she was just waiting at the bench where we always meet,” Mahan said. “But I’d never met her there before.”

The Project Lifesaver bracelet allows her mother to retain some of her independence and take the walks around the neighborhood that she enjoys each day, Mahan said.

“I feel a lot safer now,” Mahan said.

Maki said he can’t advocate the program enough.

“It is a shock that in the 21st century, people can disappear literally off the face of the Earth,” Maki said. “But I have experienced more than 100 searches for missing people, and it happens. Anybody with dementia — even the slightest inkling of it — needs to be a part of Project Lifesaver.”

Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939.