Milwaukee Tharan Elkins grew more concerned about her husband as the hours passed. Billy Elkins had never been gone quite so long during his daily walk around the neighborhood in search of aluminum cans.
Elkins, 67, diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, was gone more than six hours when his wife started phoning family members.
Relatives searched unsuccessfully in the Suffolk, Va., area, then contacted Project Lifesaver, a program operated by the 43rd Virginia Volunteer Search and Rescue Company in nearby Chesapeake.
Searchers used an electronic receiver and antenna to find Elkins, who was wearing a transmitting device about the size of a wristwatch.
"He was 20 miles away from his home lying in a soybean field a mile off the road," said Gene Saunders of Project Lifesaver. Had Elkins not been found when he was, doctors said he would have died from dehydration.
Tharan Elkins had enrolled her husband in the program because of his disease.
"The device on his arm is what saved him," Mrs. Elkins said. "They tracked it right to him."
The tracking strategy
Saunders said electronic tracking of patients suffering from Alzheimer's, dementia, Down syndrome and even children with autism has helped law enforcement agencies drastically cut manpower and time in their search for a missing person.
"We're doing it with two or three people as opposed to 100 people involved in a search for a day," he said.
Besides Virginia, Project Lifesaver was established in Georgia, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Vermont and the Canadian province of New Brunswick. Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Louisiana, Maryland, Montana, South Carolina and Wisconsin are in various stages of setting up the program, Saunders said.
The 43rd Virginia team developed the search strategy for the project, started two years ago, and has trained at least 17 other agencies to use the tracking device, which has helped locate at least 158 people, Saunders said.
For about $25 a month, the local agency operating Project Lifesaver rents a transmitter, the size of a man's watch, to the caregiver. The waterproof bracelet can be attached to a wrist or ankle, and in some cases a belt, and can be removed only if it is cut off. The receiver and antenna are monitored by an agency, typically law enforcement, which tracks an inaudible chirping noise emitted by the transmitter.
The Alzheimer's Assn. Riverland chapter in La Crosse, Wis., bought a $2,150 receiver and four transmitters at $230 each. A representative of the organization and personnel from the La Crosse County Sheriff's Department trained with the Virginia search-and-rescue team on how to use the equipment by land and air.
"We've got some awful extreme temperatures and when you're talking frail older adults, I think it's important that we have this going," said Laura Moriarty of the Riverland Alzheimer's chapter.
The agency was raising money to purchase another receiver and four more transmitters before launching the project, dubbed Rapid Recovery.
The La Crosse County Sheriff's Department has discouraged caregivers from buying a transmitter and receiver on their own because the signals can interfere with law enforcement's tracking efforts.
Old technology, new uses
The device used by Project Lifesaver is manufactured by Care Trak, Inc., of Carbondale, Ill., which makes a similar product to track elk, wolves and other wild animals, said Richard Blanchard, chief operating officer.
"The technology has been around awhile, but the application is new," Blanchard said, adding that the transmitter is also used to find people with traumatic brain injuries.
Michael and Karen Chesanek, who live in a remote area of Acworth, N.H., attached a monitoring bracelet to their 9-year-old son, Joey, who has severe autism.
"It's woods, dirt roads, the middle of nowhere and Joey wanders," Mrs. Chesanek said. "Trying to keep these kids at home with the family is a challenge, especially kids like my Joey who has no fear and just takes off."
Sixty percent of Alzheimer's patients will wander at some point, according to the national Alzheimer's Assn., which estimated the survival rate for wandering patients at 47 percent if they are not found within 24 hours.
Virginia Bedell of Bradford, Vt., who learned about the electronic monitoring device from a granddaughter who works as a deputy sheriff, decided it was right for her 77-year-old husband, Milton, who suffers from Alzheimer's.
"I couldn't find him one day," Mrs. Bedell said. But the transmitter found him "at a little diner having coffee and doughnuts. He walked a lot. You never know where he might end up."