An 85-year-old Weeki Wachee man left to get a haircut and didn't return. He was found the next day, unharmed, 200 miles away in Collier County. A 75-year-old Largo man took a drive and was found two days later when his truck broke down in Georgia. An 85-year-old St. Petersburg woman didn't get as far, thanks to Silver Alert. Gisela Petrovic disappeared from her home one December night and was found a few hours later in Dunedin when a woman saw an electric road sign describing her Toyota. These are just a few of the past year's Silver Alert cases, where roadside and media notifications are used to help find someone 60 or older who disappeared in a vehicle.
The program was launched in 2008 after an 86-year-old Largo woman signed herself out of her assisted living facility to run errands. Mary Zelter was found several days later near Clearwater Beach, where she had driven her car into the water and drowned.
By that time, several states already had Silver Alerts. The program piloted in Pinellas County — where Clearwater has the country's highest elderly population per capita — and quickly went statewide.
The alerts don't always yield success. Only a small percentage of missing elderly people found are the direct result of a roadside alert. And in 10 cases, the missing were discovered dead.
In 2009, a 75-year-old visitor from England named Enid Grace Hendricks left her niece's home in Ruskin and was found dead, still in her housecoat and slippers, in a field near Interstate 75.
At least five people saw her while she was still alive, authorities said, but no one thought to report her.
A statewide road sign Silver Alert was never issued because she was on foot, though locally, deputies issued their own alerts.
Chuck Albrecht, the senior vice president of the Alzheimer's Association Florida Gulf Coast Chapter, said if only one Silver Alert results in a rescue, it's worth it.
The population of elderly people and people living with dementia and Alzheimer's will continue to grow, making the need for the alerts even more important. "But like most things," he said, "there's always some room for improvement."