Howard County Times
Howard County

Program is lifeline to the lost

Gary Gardner was leaving a community meeting in the Wilde Lake Village Center one night last summer when an elderly woman who lived nearby approached him.

The woman was frantic, Gardner recalled.

"Have you seen my husband?" she asked, showing a picture to Gardner, the deputy chief of the Howard County Police Department.

The woman told Gardner that her husband, a former triathlete who was still in great physical shape, had wandered off from their nearby home. She was worried because he suffered from Alzheimer's and often left without notice. Within minutes, another police officer familiar with the couple had found the man and reunited him with his worried wife.

Gardner said that the incident was the impetus to extend the department's involvement in Project Lifesaver, a tracking program that helps to locate children and adults with cognitive disorders who have wandered off, including people with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.

It took a few months and a grant from the Horizon Foundation for the department to implement Gardner's idea. The department announced last week that the program would now include anyone diagnosed with a cognitive disorder, including Alzheimer's patients.

According to Sgt. Page Christis, who has coordinated Project Lifesaver for the department since it was established in Howard County in 2007, there were already 15 families with autistic children and one with a mentally handicapped child in the program.

"It's peace of mind, that's our motto," Christis said.

The Columbia couple Gardner encountered a few months ago became the first with an Alzheimer's patient to sign up last week. Gardner said that the couple would prefer to keep their identity private, but he said he expects the program to grow drastically with the inclusion of those with forms of dementia.

"We actually expect more calls for elderly patients with dementia than for autistic children," Gardner said.

For Anita Sutton, the announcement that the police wouldn't charge the first year for the bracelet transmitter needed to help track those who are missing - and would charge only $75 annually for supplies after that - is a big relief in trying to give the proper care to her 59-year-old mother.

Vivian Scott was diagnosed in 2004 with vascular dementia, and her condition has worsened the past two years. In December 2008, Scott wandered off from her daughter's home where she lives near Howard County General Hospital and tried to trace by foot the bus route that took her to the senior center in Owen Brown - a distance of several miles.

It took nearly seven hours for Sutton to find her mother, who was able to give her daughter's phone number to a person trying to help not far from the senior center. A friend of Sutton's who works for the Police Department told her about Project Lifesaver, but Sutton said that the cost of the bracelet transmitter - about $1,100 - was prohibitive.

When Sutton heard that the police had recently received funding for a "limited" number of bracelets, she quickly signed up.

Having a parent wander off "once is one too many," she said. "A few times is far too many."

Sutton, who now has a full-time aide watching her mother and has installed an alarm system that beeps when the front door is opened, said that before her mother's condition advanced, she would have likely cut off the wristband. Given her mother's condition now, Sutton doesn't believe that will happen.

"I think [having a monitor] will make it easier," Sutton said.

Sue Vaeth, administrator for the Department on Aging for Howard County, said that the Project Lifesaver program is "another tool" in helping keep track of adults and others with cognitive disorders.

With the widening of the program, Vaeth can now help police locate potential candidates for the wristband transmitter that operates on radio waves.

"It certainly delivers a lot of peace of mind," said Vaeth, who also encourages senior citizens and their families to use Maryland Access Point of Howard County (410-313-5980) as a means to get information on how to care for the elderly.

Information on each participant's conditions, medications and personal history, as well as a photograph, will be kept on file so that the person's information is readily available, should they go missing. Participants are asked to wear the wristband transmitter at all times, be provided constant supervision and not operate a motor vehicle. They should also be a resident of a private home, apartment or condominium.

The timing of last week's announcement comes in the midst of an extended period of bitterly cold temperatures in the region, making those who might wander away from their homes more vulnerable if they can't be found for an extended period.

Gardner recalled an incident a couple of years ago when an elderly man with dementia left the mall after his wife told him to wait for her while she went to the bathroom.

With the help of a police helicopter equipped with an infrared beam typically used to locate criminals hiding in the woods, the man was found a short time later. He had fallen in a ditch right outside the mall. While the equipment used in Project Lifesaver is not as high-tech, it is still very effective, cutting down searches that can last hours - or even days - to a matter of minutes. The transmitter has a one-mile radius, Gardner said.

Police are now accepting applications from Howard County's older adult residents who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, dementia and other related cognitive impairments for this program. Howard County is one of 1,100 jurisdictions across the country that participate in Project Lifesaver since it began in 1999. It is now in 45 states.

According to Christis, the police will continue to work with two other agencies, the county's Department on Aging and the Howard County Autism Society, in order to get information out on Project Lifesaver.

"Howard County police are constantly looking at ways to better serve our aging population," Police Chief William McMahon said in a statement last week.

More information can be found by searching for Project Lifesaver on the Police Department's Web site at