WASHINGTON — The recent death of an 86-year-old Largo woman has prompted federal legislation to help states set up "Silver Alert" systems for finding missing senior citizens.
Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, said he filed the bill Thursday largely in response to the death of Mary Zelter, whose body was found floating in the Intracoastal Waterway a week after she signed out of her assisted-living facility. Her car was fished out of the water shortly afterward.
"This stuff happens on an everyday basis, and I think there's a real need," Bilirakis said.
His bill, the Silver Alert Grant Program Act of 2008, would authorize $5.6-million each year to help states set up their own systems, similar to the Amber Alert triggered when a child disappears, for coordinating state and local efforts to find missing seniors with Alzheimer's disease or dementia.
The U.S. attorney general would administer the program and compile best practices and ideas for interested states. Those whose applications are accepted would receive at least $100,000.
Several states — including North Carolina, Texas, Michigan and Colorado — have Silver Alerts. Bilirakis' staff researched the programs and found that quickly disseminating information about missing seniors to state and local agencies has improved the chances they will be found, aides said. Some states have tried the idea but abandoned it for lack of money.
"They should make this a priority, and we don't want them to have any excuses," Bilirakis said.
Mrs. Zelter's daughter, Mary Lallucci of Belleair, praised the legislation Thursday.
"I couldn't believe it — it was so obvious. Why doesn't Florida of all states have this?" Lallucci said.
Bilirakis plans to shop the bill to colleagues in the House and Senate. The Alzheimer's Association estimates that 5-million Americans have Alzheimer's and that most of them may wander.
Police say Zelter signed herself out of the Royal Palms assisted-living facility on Feb. 25 and drove away. Credit card records show she spent $30 at an Albertsons, but never made it home.
Lallucci said she had lived there for about six months and had driven to the store and back many times. Her body and car were found about 10 miles away.
"I don't know what was different that day. I really don't," Lallucci said.
Mrs. Zelter's family convinced police to issue an all-points bulletin for her, "but my mother would have had to have an accident or been pulled over for anyone to know," Lallucci said.
"There wasn't an alert, like Silver Alert, that goes to people. … Do I think it could have helped? Yes. Could it have saved her? Who knows. Unfortunately, I will never know."
Wes Allison can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org or (202) 463-0577.