When police officers last week found a 90-year-old Simi Valley woman wandering in a shopping mall, they weren't sure what to do. She had forgotten her name and didn't know why she was there. But when they brought her to the Simi Valley police station, they identified her by looking through a registry of Alzheimer's victims and were able to reunite her with her daughter.
The reunion was made possible through a pilot program that aims to expand throughout Ventura County. Started by Older Adult Services and Intervention Systems, a 3-year-old Simi Valley agency that cares for adults over 60 and Alzheimer's victims, the program places photographs and personal information about Alzheimer's patients in local police stations.
Veronica Hurd, who heads the program from the St. Peter Claver Church in Simi Valley, developed the identification system 18 months ago with the aid of Simi Valley Police Officer Jay Carrott, whose father has Alzheimer's disease.
Patients' names, physical descriptions, photographs, emergency contact numbers and personality traits are registered with the service and kept in files in the police dispatch offices so missing persons may be more easily identified and returned home by police.
"This program probably saves some lives because of that," said May Stage, president of the Alzheimer's Assn. in Ventura. She said similar identification programs have been highly successful in Los Angeles, Honolulu, Texas and New Mexico.
Hurd is working to implement the program around the county by June. She said she has 13 patients in Thousand Oaks waiting for the program to start with the East Valley Sheriff's Department and is visiting other local police stations to see if they will participate.
Hurd said the agency, funded by a grant from the county's Area Agency on Aging, finds clients through word-of-mouth. Most are living in their own homes or with other family members.
Alzheimer's disease afflicts an estimated 4 million people in the United States and is the fourth leading cause of death among adults, behind heart disease, cancer and strokes. There is a 19% chance of adults between the ages of 75 and 84 having Alzheimer's and a 50% chance for adults over 85, according to statistics cited by Hurd.
Alzheimer's victims suffer recent-memory loss, anxiety, disorientation, impaired judgment and inability to perform daily social and personal tasks. Persons with Alzheimer's may forget their friends,' children's or spouses' names, or even their own names.
The need to walk is a symptom of the brain-affecting disease, and most patients are beyond explaining why they wander, Hurd said.
"It's very normal," she said. "This is one of the stages of Alzheimer's."
Because their distant memory is intact, patients remember people and places from their past and may wander in search of something familiar from their youth.
Hurd said she had a Simi Valley client who became convinced that he lived in Fillmore, his home some 60 years before. She said he was often found trying to flag down cars on the freeway to take him back.
Stage gave another example of a man who went for a regular walk and ended up missing for 10 hours. An old friend found him wandering around a neighborhood where he used to live.
Patients often wander for hours or days, either until they're stopped or can go no farther. Hurd said they become fearful and irrational as the surroundings, which they may see every day, become unfamiliar; some lash out in fear. She said police are instructed in the files on how to best deal with particular patients.
Other tactics to deal with wandering include extra door locks and garment identification tags. Labels with the person's name, phone number and notice of having Alzheimer's disease are stitched inside outer clothing, such as jackets, so police can more easily identify someone who may not remember who they are.
Although only a handful of patients are currently involved in the program--20 in Simi Valley, five in Fillmore and one in Moorpark--police say the program is worthwhile.
"It's a great program and it's a great resource to have, even if it's not massively used," said Randy White, crime prevention specialist for Simi Valley police.
Hurd attributed the small number of clients to misinformation and lack of knowledge. She said many people don't understand what is happening when Alzheimer's symptoms appear, or they want to avoid the stigma of receiving mental-health care.
Hurd said one of the program's goals is to alleviate the fears of those who care for Alzheimer's victims. She said the program brings hope to families who are in an often hopeless situation.
"We basically take their picture, fill out the form and drop it off at the police station . . . then pray we never have to use it," Hurd said.