An intensive search for a 72-year-old man who disappeared from Robert A. Pascal Senior Center in Glen Burnie early Wednesday ended when he was found at University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore last night.
"We're real relieved," said Ed Thomas, 80, a volunteer at Pascal.
Although family members were glad Herbert Sturgeon was found safe, they questioned why center officials had failed to notice that he was missing for five hours. The incident raised questions about the responsibility of publicly run senior centers to oversee elderly visitors.
Sturgeon was reported missing by his family Wednesday evening. Officials at the Glen Burnie center called his niece that afternoon to ask where he was and to complain that Sturgeon, who had signed in at 9 a.m. as usual, hadn't said he was going to leave early.
Using a helicopter and dogs, county police searched the woods near the senior center yesterday for Sturgeon before his return home. He had gone into Baltimore on light rail, his niece said.
It was unclear last night why he was at the hospital.
Friends and family members described Sturgeon, who takes daily medication for a heart condition, as a man of strict routine. He has attended the center on Dorsey Road near Baltimore-Washington International Airport three days a week for about five years.
But Wednesday morning, Sturgeon, who lives with his niece on Glenwood Road in Riviera Beach, deviated from his schedule, Thomas said. After arriving via a senior transportation van and signing in, Sturgeon immediately left to take a walk, Thomas said.
"That's a very unusual thing for him to do at that time of the morning," said Thomas.
Sturgeon's niece and guardian Linda Pumphrey, 53, said his failure to show up for his usual activities should have raised a warning flag among employees and volunteers there.
"They should have called me then," Pumphrey said yesterday.
Authorities on aging said questions raised by the family highlight misconceptions about the purpose of senior centers.
"We are basically a recreation and education center for older people," said Pascal manager Nancy Allred. "Seniors who come here are presumed to be independent."
With three employees at a center visited by more than 3,000 seniors a year, spotting schedule changes or irregular behavior is nearly impossible, Allred said: "We rely on family members to alert us to changes in behavior. And we work very hard to get the word out that this is not a supervised facility."
About 14,000 people use Anne Arundel senior centers each year, officials say.
Seniors must sign in when they arrive at the Pascal center, said Thomas, a volunteer for about 15 years. Once they've logged in, they may come and go as they please, he said.
The 200 or so people who visit Pascal each day are encouraged - but not required - to walk in pairs or groups, Thomas said. He and Sturgeon occasionally left the facility to eat lunch at a nearby restaurant, he said.
"I didn't know they could leave there," Pumphrey said. "If I had known that, he wouldn't have been going there anymore."
Virginia Thomas, director of the county Department of Aging, said the Pascal center's schedule of activities and education programs shows that it's a place for active, independent seniors.
A separate program at the centers, called Senior Plus, provides more supervision for older people with cognitive difficulties such as Alzheimer's. The program costs $28 a day. Activities at the senior center are free to anyone 55 or older. The only requirement is that the person must be self-sufficient.
The independent nature of Maryland's senior centers makes it difficult to assess potential mental ailments in the people who use them, said Shelley Jennings, family care coordinator for the greater Maryland chapter of the Alzheimer's Association.
"The center is designed for the active senior, but there are seniors who are active but have some cognitive deficits," Jennings said. "Who is going to pick up on that? It's a huge challenge for the workers."
The Alzheimer's Association trains employees to recognize the beginning stages of the disease, which can include forgetfulness and wandering, Jennings said.
No one has noticed any such signs in Sturgeon. "He is very popular and well-liked," Allred said. "He's an active volunteer."