It's one of the worst things the caregiver of a loved one with Alzheimer's can face.
One minute their loved one is there, quiet and safe. The next, they're gone. Out the door. Or in the car. Out of sight.
More than half of the people who suffer from dementia or Alzheimer's disease will wander, according to experts. They will walk or drive off looking for some place or moment from the past.
Now, there is a nationwide program that allows caregivers to put out the word, via text or email, the moment a loved one goes missing.
Home Instead Senior Care, a nationwide franchise for in-home care, has launched the Missing Senior Network, an online site where caregivers register key information to help communicate that a senior with dementia is wandering (missingseniornetwork.com). The alert goes to friends, family members, neighbors and businesses entered into the person's Missing Senior Network profile.
The service is free; being a client with of Home Instead, which has more than 37 franchises in Florida and 14 in the Tampa Bay area, is not required.
"Wanderers with Alzheimer's are looking to go back to places they are familiar with," said Colin Castle, director of marketing for the Home Instead franchise in Clearwater. "They get stuck in a particular period of time, so they are looking for particular surroundings: a park, a neighborhood house, a favorite restaurant."
The Missing Senior Network enables family members to personalize the alert. They list the friends, family, neighbors and places a wandering senior may visit. They post photos of their loved one.
The alert system is part of Prevent Wandering, a community education program developed in cooperation with the Alzheimer's Association that provides resources and tips to help families gain insight into what triggers a wandering event.
"Wandering is a huge issue," said Lisa Milne, vice president of programs for the Florida Gulf Coast Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association.
"About 60 percent of people with Alzheimer's wander. If it hasn't happened yet, chances are it will happen at some point."
The chapter covers 17 Florida counties, with 179,000 Alzheimer's cases. In Hillsborough County, there are 21,000 cases. In Pinellas, 31,000.
The Alzheimer's Association sells a Me-dicAlert + Safe Return bracelet and pendant seniors can wear with their personalized information. It's important "to have preventative measures in mind," Milne said.
Caregivers should be alert to "triggers" — events that might spark an Alzheimer's patient to wander.
"Overstimulation can be a trigger," Castle said, "like family gatherings. Seniors who get overstimulated just wander off."
Fatigue can be another, he said.
The biggest factor that causes an Alzheimer's patient to wander is a change of routine, he said. "A lot of times, if you fall out of a routine, the change can really confuse and cause a panic with many of these Alzheimer's patients."
Other factors can be a change in medication or a spike in blood sugar after a meal at a restaurant. "Every case is different with this disease."
Trying to persuade an Alzheimer's patient not to wander is generally futile.
"You can't just say to them over and over, 'You have dementia. You can't leave the house,' " said Temi Charrier, co-owner of the Lakeland Home Instead franchise.
"They will look at you as if you were crazy."
Instead, caring for an Alzheimer's patient and pre-empting a wandering event is "on-the-job training," she said. "It's one thing if your grandfather forgets who you are. It's another thing if he says, 'This isn't my house' and tries to leave."
To make matters even more challenging, triggers for Alzheimer's patients do not need to be negative. Any change in routine can be stressful. A new grandchild. Even the annual Christmas tree going up because it hasn't been there all year.
The Missing Senior Network is new, but another program has been around since 2011: Florida's Silver Alert program. Silver Alert is part of a nationwide system used to notify the public via media and highway message boards that a senior is missing. It, too, is free, but the alert must be launched by law enforcement agencies.
There were 22 Silver Alerts in Florida in July, the last month for which statistics are available.
As recently as last Wednesday, a St. Petersburg man who has Alzheimer's disease went missing. He was found Thursday in Myakka City.
Contact Fred W. Wright Jr. at email@example.com.