SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A decade after California launched its AMBER Alert program, which enlists citizen help in searching for missing children, the state will add a similar program for another of society’s at risk groups: its elderly.
It’s called the Silver Alert program.
Starting Jan. 1, if a person age 65 or older with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease is reported missing and believed to be in peril, local police will have the authority to ask the California Highway Patrol to issue an electronic bulletin asking for public, news media and broader law enforcement help to find the person.
California joins an estimated 30 states with Silver Alert programs, acknowledging a growing issue for the nation as the population ages and the number of people suffering from some form of dementia increases.
It’s about time, said Joseph Murphy of Tracy, a member of the California Senior Legislature, who has been pushing for years for an alert program.
“California is usually a national leader," Murphy said. “But this time they were dragging their feet."
As the massive wave of baby boomers ages, California’s 65-plus population is projected to double from 4.5 million to 9 million in the next 20 years.
An estimated 500,000 seniors now are living with some level of dementia, a number expected to double by 2030, according to former state Sen. Elaine Alquist, the Santa Clara Democrat who authored the Silver Alert law, Senate Bill 1047.
The new law differs from AMBER Alerts in several respects. AMBER Alerts often are triggered when a child is believed to have been abducted. Silver Alerts are likely to be triggered when older people wander or drive away from their homes or nursing facilities — a practice common among people with moderate to severe dementia.
Advocates for the elderly say it is critical to track down a missing wanderer in the first 24 hours. Many will walk or drive for hours, even if they are feeble. They may fail to eat, may not be dressed for inclement weather, and generally won’t ask for help. They may need medications for their health.
“If not found within 24 hours, up to half of wandering seniors with dementia suffer serious injury or death," a state legislative analysis said.
Ruth Gay of the Alzheimer’s Association of Northern California said wandering happens when a person becomes confused and fails to recognize his surroundings. The person typically will set out looking for familiar surroundings, or “home," even if that home is a childhood residence he hasn’t lived in for decades.
“When we think of the number of baby boomers out there, it is a train wreck in the making if we don’t figure out ways to protect our seniors," Alquist said.
Her law will sunset at the beginning of 2016, but can be extended by legislative vote if officials determine it is useful.
Some other states’ Silver Alert systems apply to missing people of all ages, acknowledging the fact that some people in their 50s and even younger suffer from confused thinking and dementia.
Unlike AMBER Alerts, the state will not post missing seniors information on freeway signboards.