Dorothy Cassel's uncle left a nursing home in his pajamas one night in 1963. "They found him several days later, froze to death in a field,” she said. "Someone had to see him. Someone had to see him, I would think.” Cassel's uncle had dementia, a neurological condition that can cause people to wander away from safety because of declining memory and decision making skills. Two years ago, the state House of Representatives passed a resolution calling for a Silver Alert system to find missing seniors much the same way the Amber Alert system helps law enforcement track down missing children. About five to 10 Silver Alerts have been issued since, a state official said. Now Cassel and other advocates are leading the push for a nationwide program.
Alerts aren't lawThe idea of a Silver Alert came from a small group of volunteers in Shawnee, said Cassel, who is involved in the Silver-Haired Legislature, an advocacy group for seniors. The volunteers turned the plan over to the Silver-Haired Legislature, who in turn pressed the state Legislature. Rep. Fred Perry, R-Tulsa, and Rep. Barbara Staggs, D-Muskogee, pushed a resolution through the House. As a resolution, the Silver Alert program is not required by law, said Gene Thaxton, director of telecommunications for the state Department of Public Safety. The department is responsible for implementing the program, and Thaxton patterned it somewhat after the Amber Alert. The alert is issued for patients with Alzheimer's disease, which is the most common form of dementia or other health issues who have wandered away from those who care for them, Thaxton said. When issuing the alert, law officers give information similar to that issued in an Amber Alert, such as a physical description of the missing person and vehicle information, if available. A key difference is that an Amber Alert interrupts broadcast programming but the Silver Alert doesn't, Thaxton said. Another difference is that the Amber Alert is issued by state officials, while the Silver Alert is issued by local law enforcement agencies. So far, that system is working well, Thaxton said, the alerts aren't being overused. "The local officials are making good decisions about its use,” he said. The two states that have Silver Alert programs mandated by law have issued more alerts than Oklahoma, even though the programs haven't been in effect as long. Since the program began last year in North Carolina, about a dozen Silver Alerts have been issued, according to the North Carolina Department of Crime Control and Public Safety. In Texas, 25 alerts have been issued since the program began in September, said Tela Mange, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Public Safety. Of those, 22 people were found alive and three were found dead. "It seems to be working,” Mange said. "There's always a concern — the same with the Amber Alerts — that you don't want to have so many of them that people kind of tune out, which is why we've been very strict in making sure that any Silver Alerts that are issued through the state meet all the criteria.” An effective Silver Alert program doesn't create alerts so often that the public becomes jaded, said Mark Fried, regional director of the Central Oklahoma Alzheimer's Association. A Silver Alert program should be as powerful as the Amber Alert program, he said. "Right now an Amber Alert is sent out and people are very aware of it and take it very seriously,” Fried said.
Oklahomans take leadCassel said she and others will continue pushing the issue until a nationwide program like the Amber Alert system exists for seniors. Officials in several states are considering similar legislation, including Ohio and West Virginia. Cassel has been talking with local and national politicians. One key advocate, she said, is U.S. Rep. Mary Fallin, R-Oklahoma City. Fallin sent a letter in December to Kevin Martin, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, asking for a task force to look at creating a nationwide Silver Alert system. The death of Betty Ledgerwood, 77, of Oklahoma City shows the need for a national system, Fallin wrote in her letter. Ledgerwood, who had Alzheimer's, drove away from her home in October. Her body was found in Missouri a few days later. She died of exposure a short distance from her car, Fallin wrote. "As Betty Ledgerwood's case illustrates, the lack of a coordinated search system between state, local and interstate law enforcement agents can cost lives and cause families a great deal of hardship,” Fallin wrote. Cassel said she believes an effective system can be created, perhaps in time to help others in her generation. "I hope there will be something or someone around if I get disoriented and lost,” Cassel said. "I hope there will be something over the air or a Silver Alert; that somebody will recognize me and keep me from freezing.”