MIDDLETOWN — Miriam Braga’s mother was missing for 28 hours before her body was found by law enforcement in February 2019.
Braga’s mother was diagnosed with late-stage Alzheimer’s disease the previous year. Although wandering is a typical behavior for people living with Alzheimer’s, she said that her mom never showed interest in going out on her own. So when Braga stepped out for a quick pharmacy run, she never imagined returning to her front door wide open and her mother gone.
Braga said she immediately called 911 but was overwhelmed by first responders’ questions, like what her mother was wearing, where she would go and if she had a recent photo. She said the police search took all night.
She described the panic and unease she felt throughout the search for her mother at a press conference Thursday morning at State Police Headquarters in Middletown announcing a new registry system to help law enforcement find and identify residents with cognitive challenges if they go missing or wander.
The new registry, which is called “Bring Me Back Home,” was created by the Alzheimer’s Association Connecticut Chapter in collaboration with the Connecticut State Police as a proactive safety measure to ensure law enforcement has all the necessary information on a wandering person to immediately start a search.
Speakers at the press conference included Emergency Services and Public Protection Commissioner Ronnell Higgins, members of the Alzheimer’s Association of Connecticut, and State Police.
“It’s tragic and it was a very sad story. But this program, I think, is wonderful because I can tell you that this has been in place when my mom disappeared; it would have gone so much quicker,” Braga said. “I’m not saying that maybe the end would’ve been different, but I think it would have concluded sooner rather than having to go through the entire night, having people come in and out of the house and just wondering where she is.”How common iswandering?
Attendee and Regional Program Manager for the Alzheimer’s Association Connecticut chapter, Esther Pearl, told the Record-Journal that an estimated 80,000 Connecticut residents have some form of dementia or Alzheimer’s.
About six in 10 people living with dementia will wander and become lost or confused about their location at least once, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Although common, wandering can be extremely dangerous or life-threatening if the missing person is not found within 24 hours.
Pearl noted that wandering can happen at any stage of Alzheimer’s and can come on suddenly, so a registry allows family members and caregivers to be proactive
“Sometimes people are lulled into a sense of safety and say ‘Well, my loved one hasn’t wandered yet, so I don’t need to worry about it,’” Pearl said. “Part of what we want to do with this program is to help people be proactive so that the information is already on file, it’s already gathered … You don’t want to plan for a crisis in the midst of a crisis. You want to plan well beforehand.”
For example, state Trooper Daniel Cole and his canine partner, a bloodhound named Ruby, were central in rescuing an older woman with dementia who had wandered from her home in Danbury. He said they were called into the search almost 20 hours in and the only information officers had on the missing woman was a doorbell camera footage of her leaving.
Cole said they used clothes and pillowcases from the woman’s home to help Ruby identify her scent and, ultimately, locate her alive. He explained that the woman had wandered 200 yards into the dense woods near her condo before she fell into the bushes. He said she wasn’t visible from where she had fallen and Ruby had to jump over large rocks and thorny bushes to reach her. Cole and Ruby were awarded a life-saving medal for their work finding her.How does ‘Bring Me Back Home’ work?
The Bring Me Back Home registry results from a year and a half “multifaceted collaboration” from the Alzheimer’s Association of Connecticut and various state police departments, said Lt. Colonel Mark Davison, commanding officer of the Office of the Ministry Services for State Police.
According to the registry website, family members, guardians, or caregivers can register a person with cognitive challenges that may lead to confusion and disorientation or are at risk for wandering online or in person at their local police department. Details for the registry include basic profiles such as a photo of the person with cognitive challenges, vehicle information and a physical description.
Davison added that the registry sign-up asks questions about a person’s wandering tendencies, potential behaviors and potential locations. He said these additional details could help officers reframe how they interact with wandering persons so they can help appropriately and empathetically.
The provided personal information is securely stored in the Connecticut On-Line Law Enforcement Communications Teleprocessing, or COLLECT, the statewide criminal justice and safety system, to which all police departments have access. Once an emergency occurs, information on the missing persons is made available to responding officers.
Speakers at the press conference noted that the registry doesn’t guarantee finding a person but rather makes information readily available so that a search can be started immediately and officers can help the missing persons in an empathetic and understanding manner once they are found.
The idea of a registry for law enforcement is not novel, Davison added. He explained that there are many local police departments in and out of Connecticut that have already had similar setups. However, access to a statewide registry can make crucial information more accessible and launch a search faster.
“Ultimately, we’re enabling a more cohesive response, a more educated response in the location tactically and then more strategically, how to appropriately and empathetically interact when we ultimately ended up finding someone, achieving a better result,” Davison said.‘A godsend’
Tonya Maurer, said her mom wandered away from her memory care facility and walked over three hours to Maurer’s house late one November night last year. Although relieved, Maurer said her heart sank when her mother arrived at their front door.
She said that a million questions and “what if” scenarios were racing through her head while they waited for news on her mother. Questions like “Where was she? Was she hurt? What was she wearing? It’s the beginning of winter... What if she tried to walk back to Vermont because that was her last long residence was up in Vermont? What if she fell and hit her head? What if she was stopped by police but she came across incoherent and drunk?”
Maurer said the registry is a “godsend” because it acts like a safety net that can provide families with some comfort, knowing that a search can start immediately without the additional pressure of answering questions from first responders.
“It just gives that level of comfort that when I call 911, they’ll know that mom has Alzheimer’s and that it’s pertinent that they can approach her with a different perspective,” Maurer said.
To register for “Bring Me Back Home,” click on https://portal.ct.gov/bmbh
Health Equity reporter Cris Villalonga-Vivoni is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. They can be reached at email@example.com and 203-317-2448. Support RFA reporters through a donation at https://bit.ly/3Pdb0re.