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When Elders Go Missing

Each year, hundreds wander away from their homes. Too many are never seen again

In most cases, they don't make it very far. In the Mayo study, most wanderers did not go farther than a mile from their home. But finding a missing older person presents particular challenges, says Kelly. Elders won't respond to their name when called. They might hide when a search party approaches, which is especially true with Holocaust survivors and military veterans. Or they might find their way home, only to wander off again when they see police vehicles filling the driveway.

What to do if an older person is missing

Because speed is so important to bringing an older person home safely, Kelly recommends spending no more than 15 minutes searching your house and yard for your loved one. After that, call 911.

  • When you call 911, don't just say you can't find your spouse or parent — tell them that the parent has dementia and is at grave risk of danger. "Law enforcement's understanding and knowledge have increased exponentially over the past decade," says Kelly. So if you tell officials that dementia is involved, more than likely you'll get a speedy and calculated response. When Ingrassia called 911, police responded quickly with tracking dogs. A search team, including an equine unit, was dispatched and helicopters circled the area, all on the hunt for Giuseppe.

  • While waiting for law enforcement to arrive, locate a recent photo of the missing person and write down a list of what he or she was wearing, medical history and any medications.

  • Think about conversations you had recently — was there a mention of someplace your loved one wanted to go?

  • Ask police to issue a Silver Alert. Similar to an Amber Alert for missing children, a Silver Alert (available in nearly all states) uses radio and television announcements to alert citizens to be on the lookout for your loved one.

The search for Giuseppe continues

In Howard Beach, Queens, pictures of Giuseppe Russo are plastered on telephone booths, in grocery stores and restaurants. Because her father loved the water, Ingrassia fears he might be in one of the waterways that surround the piers and marshes in the area. Police tell her they have to wait for warmer weather before doing any dredging. In the meantime, the family continues to jump each time the phone rings. Their hearts ache with each wintry blast of air. They try to find words to explain to Ingrassia's 6-year-old son why his grandfather is no longer around. And most of all, they try to hold on to their faith.

"We will know," says Ingrassia. "Whether he's alive or dead, we will know. That's all I keep saying. Nobody could disappear from the face of the earth like that. It's not possible and it's not going to be possible in this situation. My good vibes and energy and prayers are going to bring him back."

Cynthia Ramnarace writes about health and families. She lives in Rockaway Beach, N.Y.

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