RICHMOND, Va. — Ruth Johnson installed deadbolt locks on the doors at home, but they weren't intended to keep intruders out. She was trying to keep her husband inside.
Nelson Johnson's condition was diagnosed as Alzheimer's disease nearly 10 years ago. A dangerous symptom of the disorder is wandering. Patients leave home without knowing where they are going. They don't remember where they live or who they are, and are unable to ask for help.
Some are found quickly. Others are never found.
Alzheimer's is "a terrible experience to go through," Ruth Johnson said from her farm at Gretna in southern Virginia. "It's such a confusing disease."
Wandering is so serious a problem that the Alzheimer's Assn. developed a Wanderer's Alert Program to find missing patients and reunite them with their families.
The program was created after a New York man with Alzheimer's wandered away from home in March, 1988, and died of exposure.
Ruth Johnson said neighbors did not understand why her husband would wander the pastures in the dead of winter dressed in pajamas and slippers. She couldn't explain why he would get up at 4 a.m. and start chopping wood. Their home had gas heat.
"It was kind of embarrassing at first," she said. Her husband suffered several strokes in May, 1988, and died at age 79. The Wanderer's Alert Program was begun in November, 1989, with a $300,000 grant from the Harry B. Helmsley Foundation. Since then it has been involved in 130 cases of missing Alzheimer's patients.
"It's been remarkably successful," said John A. Jager, executive director of the group's New York City chapter and one of the program's founders.
Individuals registered with the program wear identification bracelets bearing their first names, the words memory impaired ," and a telephone hot-line number.
The Chicago-based Alzheimer's Assn. has 214 chapters nationwide, and 28 of them are in the Wanderer's Alert network, Jager said.