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Florida Silver Alert program proves to be a lifesaver

Bob Hartzell of Punta Gorda, who has been diagnosed with dementia, disappeared in January. His wife Marsha called police and a Silver Alert was issued. He was found eight hours later standing next to his car — he had run out of gas.

Fort Myers News-Press

Bob Hartzell of Punta Gorda, who has been diagnosed with dementia, disappeared in January. His wife Marsha called police and a Silver Alert was issued. He was found eight hours later standing next to his car — he had run out of gas.

FORT MYERS — In August of last year, Lester Moore left his home to make a delivery, just as he had done for 50 years with Flynt & Doyle, a Fort Myers-based moving company specializing in oversized loads such as houses.

Except that Moore, 85 at the time, no longer worked for Flynt & Doyle. Diagnosed with Alzheimer's, he had retired and was living at home in Fort Myers, his daughter-in-law Maxine Moore said.

And instead of a truck, Lester was behind the wheel of his 1983 Ford Crown Victoria.

After his family hadn't heard from him for a few hours, they called law enforcement, which issued a Silver Alert.

Moore was found soon after, at a gas station.

"They found him out there near Bonita Springs," Maxine said. "He was driving to make a delivery. His mind was telling him that."

Officials involved with the program say it has potentially saved hundreds of lives, and its impact is still growing.

Alerts go out when an elderly person with a mental impairment, such as Alzheimer's or another form of dementia, is missing and believed to be driving a vehicle.

The alerts are e-mailed to law enforcement agencies, health facilities and social service organizations across the state. Messages describing the vehicle make, model and tag number also are broadcast on roadway message boards.

"We have thousands of people and thousands of eyeballs out there looking for folks," said Carol Waters, a senior management analyst with the Department of Elder Affairs.

Though many people are found within a few miles of their home, one 80-year-old man drove 940 miles from Tampa to Forest Park, Ohio, in March before being found.

The program has been gaining steam since it started. The number of alerts jumped from 105 in 2009 to 124 last year, and 92 have been issued this year.

To compare it to a more established program, 164 Amber Alerts for child abduction cases have been issued since the beginning of that program in 2000.

While awareness is expanding, many are still unfamiliar with the Silver Alert program, said Mary Barnes, president and chief executive of Alzheimer's Community Care.

"Somebody (recently) thought it was some aged convict alert," Barnes said. "The masses, I don't think, really know about the Silver Alert."

As the public becomes more educated, so does law enforcement, Barnes said.

And methods have improved, leading to an increase in the number of people recovered alive from 92 percent to 94 percent, she said. Also, fewer people are being found outside their home county and the state.

As far as officials know, every person for whom an alert has been issued has been found.

One is Bob Hartzell, who lives in Punta Gorda with his wife, Marsha. When Hartzell, 86, a trumpet player, disappeared on his way to a music gig last year, Marsha called police, who found him on the side of the road around 2 a.m. in Clewiston after putting out a Silver Alert.

"It's wonderful," Marsha said of the program. "We didn't know when we would find him or what condition he would be in, but when we found him he was in better condition than we were."

The next step, Waters said, is to create a statewide alert system for seniors who have wandered off on foot. More than 500 a year disappear from assisted-living and adult day care centers, she said.

"It's a much bigger number of individuals than those that are driving," Waters said.

Florida Silver Alert program proves to be a lifesaver 09/10/11 [Last modified: Saturday, September 10, 2011 11:04pm]

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