Cathy Wells, who lives in Kansas, may have saved a man’s life this past week. As she pulled into the parking lot at her office early one morning she noticed what she thought was a bag of trash on the ground.  When she got a closer look, to her horror, she saw that it wasn’t a bag of trash. It was an elderly man. “I immediately called 911”, says Cathy. “He was lying on the concrete with his head on the edge of a snow bank. He was bleeding from his head and clutching his chest.” Paramedics arrived within minutes and took the man to the hospital where he was treated for hypothermia.

Cathy says at first she thought the man wasn’t alive because he was so stiff and not dressed for the below freezing temperatures. “He had on shoes and socks, and just a thin windbreaker and khaki pants – the pants were pushed up and his lower legs were bare.”

Who was the man and how did he end up in a snow bank at 7:30 on a freezing cold morning?

Cathy says the police told her he was a 93-year old man with Alzheimer’s Disease and had wandered away from his home. Apparently, just around the time she discovered him, his family called the police to report him missing.

Cathy says she learned something from her experience – “if someone has Alzheimer’s it’s important to take extra precautions to make sure they are in a safe place.”

An extra precaution that many states have taken is the passage of a Silver Alert law. The law is modeled after the Amber Alert system for missing children and triggers the police and the media to quickly notify the general public when an elderly person is missing – especially one with dementia or a developmental disability.

Here in Maine, such a law might have saved the life of William Young. Mr. Young, who had dementia, disappeared from his Auburn home in April 2009. A week later his body was found in the Greenville woods, 150 miles from home and about ten miles from his SUV.

Last year, Maine passed a Silver Alert law. William Young’s widow, Claire, testified at a hearing for the bill and was standing behind former Governor John Baldacci when he signed it into law just one year after her husband’s death. “Oh, God, it was wonderful,” she told me over the phone today. “The law is going to help so many families and hopefully, they won’t have to go through what I did. When I called the police to report him missing, I was told they couldn’t start searching for another 24 hours. I begged and they just told me he’d probably show up. I couldn’t sleep. I knew he wouldn’t be able to find his way home.”

The Silver Alert law speeds up the start of searches for missing senior citizens and establishes a uniform statewide policy for informing the media and the general public. Claire says thanks to the law, the Police Academy also now has a mandatory one-hour course about Alzheimer’s Disease. “Unless they’ve experienced it first-hand,” she says, “most people simply don’t understand anything about Alzheimer’s. More people need to be educated.”

One question you might be asking is why Claire’s husband was driving if he had dementia. Claire has plenty to say on that topic, but I’m going to save it for a future post.

Back to Kansas for a moment – it has a Silver Alert law similar to Maine’s. Luckily, Cathy Wells found the elderly man before a Silver Alert was needed. When told she probably saved his life, she was quick to say she did nothing. “All I did was go to work, call 911, and say a prayer for the man.” She also paid attention and took quick action – well done, Cathy. And well done Claire Young.

The Maine Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association has information about Alzheimer’s Disease and available resources if you’d like to learn more.