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When Elders Go Missing

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

En español | A loving husband disappears

Maria Russo stands on her front stoop, the smoke from her cigarette hovering above her. It's January, and a gentle but freezing rain is falling on her Queens, N.Y., street. She looks up the block, then down. She's without a coat but doesn't seem to feel the cold.

Social change and missing elders

Giuseppe Russo. — Cynthia Ramnarace

Two months ago her husband walked out that same door and was never seen again. Whether he went up the street, or down, Russo does not know. But she does know that the day he left, it was raining. She knows it was cold. And she knows that Giuseppe Russo, 72 and suffering from Alzheimer's, had nothing on him but a sweat suit and a hat — no coat, no money, no wallet.

"You wonder where he is, what is he wearing, why did he do this?" says Russo, 56, sitting at her kitchen table, her baggy work uniform giving a hint of how much weight she's lost since her husband went missing. In a thick Italian accent, her voice cracks. She wipes tears from her eyes and shakes her head. "I still think about what he did that day, what he said, because I can't find him."

In May, the Russo family learned why Giuseppe, an Italian immigrant who devoted his life to providing for his three children, had become so different. He was constantly looking for things he had misplaced, such as his wallet. He was agitated and would start to yell, which was completely out of character. He was prone to strange behavior: washing the car in the middle of the night; showering and making breakfast at 3 a.m., as if he were getting ready to start his day.

"Dementia," the doctor said. He handed Giuseppe, known also as Joe, a prescription for a sedative. There was no doctor-family meeting, which in retrospect Russo and her daughter, Maria Ingrassia, desperately wish they'd had. They had no idea that Giuseppe's new habit of making breakfast and showering in the middle of the night were signs Giuseppe might start to wander. They had no idea that wandering was even something they should worry about.

"The doctor assumed we understood what was going on, but we didn't," says Ingrassia.

On Nov. 4, 2010, Maria Russo left the house at 1 p.m. for her job as a bus matron ensuring that special education children make it home safely. She remembers Giuseppe watching TV. He expressed concern that she hadn't eaten lunch. She had a migraine; she would eat when she came home.

Four hours later she returned to an empty house. Russo searched for an hour before calling her daughter, who immediately called 911. Police arrived quickly. A search dog picked up a scent but lost it. For three days there were helicopter and harbor searches. Ten days later, volunteers searched 80 acres of surrounding marshes. Search teams went out into the nearby marshes. Nothing.

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