The death of an elderly man with Alzheimer’s in Chilliwack this week is renewing the call for a so-called “Silver Alert” system, similar to the Amber Alert used when a child is abducted.
Seventy-nine-year-old John Pop was last seen in his Promontory neighbourhood late in the afternoon on Oct. 22. An exhaustive search by RCMP, local volunteers, family as well as Chilliwack Search and Rescue turned up no sign of him until his body was found off Bridlewood Trail near Chilliwack Lake Road.
Pop’s daughter Monica Wickham flew in from Chicago to help in the search for her father, and she thinks if there was a Silver Alert program in effect, he might have been found right away.
And she’s not alone.
Michael Coyle is one of the co-founders of BC Silver Alert, described as a collaborative project designed to help spread the word about missing individuals with cognitive impairment, but also to push for an official Silver Alert system in British Columbia.
Coyle has been a volunteer with Coquitlam Search and Rescue (SAR) since 2001 and was involved in the 2013 search for 64-year-old Shin Noh who suffered from Alzheimer’s. Noh’s son Sam along with Shawn Bouchard whose aunt went missing and was found deceased are the founders of BC Silver Alert.
Having been involved in several searches for missing people, Coyle believes a Silver Alert could be a useful tool.
“The important point here is to target it geographically,” Coyle told The Progress Monday. “We know from lost person behaviour that people with dementia have a certain profile. Seventy-five per cent are found within just a few kilometres, and 95 per cent are found within about 11 kilometres.”
Part of the pushback to a Silver Alert system is the fear of alert fatigue. If everyone in B.C. gets a jarring phone alert every time a person goes missing, there might be a negative response. And while an Amber Alert is sent out B.C.-wide because a child has been abducted and could be in a vehicle, the Silver Alert could be hyper-local. In the case of John Pop or, similarly, Ethel “Grace” Baranyk who went missing in the summer, only Chilliwack residents would have needed to be alerted since there was very little chance they got too far away.
If the national Alert Ready system were adopted using the same sound for a Silver Alert, however, it would be overkill, Coyle said.
“A Silver Alert would be a tone that indicates that it’s important, but not the alarming, wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night type thing,” he said. “We don’t need people to take immediate action… search your garage and shed and under your deck, then on the way to work keep your eye out.”
Coyle gave an example about being in South Korea in a restaurant, and everyone got a ding on their phone at the same time.
“It was because someone stole a car nearby, and if anyone sees the car, phone the police,” he said, pointing out that a Silver Alert is not a new idea and is used in several U.S. states.
Dementia is a growing problem everywhere where people are living longer. The B.C. Ministry of Health estimates there are between 60,000 and 70,000 people with dementia in the province. And the U.S. Alzheimer’s Association estimates that three out of five people with Alzheimer’s will wander.
Finding those people within the first 24 hours is critical, according to experts. In addition to John Pop last week and Grace in the summer, an 82-year-old woman went missing in the Columbia Valley area in early October and she has still not been found. (There was no report that she suffered with dementia.)
In all three cases, SAR and RCMP were involved, and a large community volunteer network developed to help search. But also in all three cases, the broader community was not made aware via the media until well over 24 hours had passed.
“We definitely want an alert that goes out faster than 12 hours or 24 hours,” Coyle said.
Social media groups can help, but Coyle said it’s the wrong kind of attention. When a Facebook group pops up to help find a missing person, it’s not a bad thing, but it targets a niche audience of concerned and proactive people who happen to be using the platform. A Silver Alert targeted to one small region or a municipality could send an alert to every person with a mobile device to ask them to report sightings right away.
What would it take to implement a Silver Alert system? Political will and co-operation by police. Coyle concedes that it is complicated, because police would need to have access to the tool and the tool would need to be set up so they can use it.
“We know we have the Alert Ready tool. If it’s not the right tool, then we need more work to be done.”