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Florida's Silver Alert System to find lost seniors has fans, but its worth is unclear

Elizabeth Callarik left a Riverview bowling alley last week, got in her Toyota Corolla and disappeared.

Within hours, the 84-year-old dementia sufferer became the 100th Silver Alert in Florida.

The system for tracking lost senior citizens is only 10 months old and already is a familiar part of the state highway electronic bulletins. But as Florida lawmakers push to take the missing persons program nationally, questions remain about its effectiveness.

Of 103 Silver Alerts issued as of Friday, 14 directly led to someone being recovered, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

All but a few of the other people were found. But it's unclear whether the alert system helped because law enforcement agencies frequently fail to report such details.

"From our perspective, any time we see a tool like this helping people, we consider it a success," said Heather Smith, spokeswoman for the FDLE, which manages Silver Alerts.

Four Silver Alerts ended in the worst way: The missing people were found dead. And an 85-year-old woman from Palm Bay who was reported missing late last year has not been found.

Callarik, the missing Hillsborough County woman, was found safe but confused after she pulled over in Miami and another driver stopped to help, said Hillsborough sheriff's officials.

She was returned home after police found her name on a state missing person's list.

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Mary Zelter, 86, wandered away from her Largo assisted living facility in February 2008. Her body eventually was found near Clearwater Beach, where she had driven her car into the water and drowned.

The case prompted a pilot Silver Alert program in Pinellas County, which led to the creation of the statewide program in October.

Ten states already had similar programs; now there are 15. In Florida, the Silver Alert program was integrated into existing Amber Alert and missing persons programs. Highway signs and experts were already in place, meaning no new expense, said the FDLE's Smith.

In the first few months of the program, critics complained that blasting Silver Alerts on every highway sign throughout the state was too much, said Terry Hensley, an operations manager for the state Department of Transportation. So officials began issuing them regionally, trying to pinpoint the area where a person was most likely to go.

Hensley contends the program is working.

"I know there have been several people found as a result of the (highway board) messages."

Others agree. Last year, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, introduced legislation to allocate $5 million to help implement the system nationwide. It was passed by the House in February and awaits Senate approval, according to a Bilirakis spokesman.

Still, questions remain about the program's effectiveness and need.

For example, in Clearwater, which has the highest per capita elderly population in the country, only one Silver Alert has been issued since the system began.

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People with Alzheimer's disease or dementia, the required condition for a Silver Alert, often wander great distances.

Just last month, an 81-year-old Tampa man never showed up for his night job in Brandon and was later discovered wandering through Vero Beach, 120 miles away. The same week, an 87-year-old Citrus County man drove off and was found in Georgia.

Experts on Alzheimer's and dementia stress the importance of both interstate and intrastate alert systems, especially those in the Tampa Bay area. Roughly 72,000 people with Alzheimer's are living in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties combined.

"We've had someone wander from Lakeland and wind up in Texas," said Chuck Albrecht, the senior vice president of the Alzheimer's Association Florida Gulf Coast Chapter. "We've seen a gentleman get on a plane and fly to New York."

Even someone with advanced dementia can remember how to drive, though may lack the ability to get to the right destination, said Dr. Bruce Robinson, chief of geriatrics at Sarasota Memorial Hospital.

Robinson is on a state-appointed committee that consults with lawmakers about Silver Alert legislation. He supports such a system but acknowledges there could be tweaking as the Silver Alert program grows.

"Whether Silver Alert makes it faster or more effective in finding people is still yet to be fully evaluated," Robinson said. "I just hope people keep an open mind."

Times researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report. Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8452.

Elizabeth Callarik

A 84-year-old Sun City resident with dementia was found safe Tuesday in Miami after being reported missing Monday. Callarik drove away from Southshore bowling alley in Riverview about 12:30 p.m. Monday. An alert was issued Monday night. She was found safe by someone who saw her pulled over in Miami.


Ann Giles
The 82-year-old woman went missing on Wednesday after she left a relative's home around 9 a.m. from the Gibsonton area to head to her home in Ocala. A Silver Alert was issued Thursday afternoon, and she was located by Orange County sheriff's deputies around midnight Thursday.

Joe Lewis Lock
The 72-year-old Tampa man, who has Alzheimer's disease, and his 73-year-old friend Hardy Fowler Jr., went missing on May 21. Lock was last seen at 10 a.m. that Thursday, leaving his home. The two were found safe at 2 a.m. the following Saturday, sitting on the side of a road in Levy County.

Florida's Silver Alert System to find lost seniors has fans, but its worth is unclear 08/21/09 [Last modified: Monday, August 24, 2009 1:33pm]

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