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Editorial: Silver Alert Programs

Helping to find missing seniors

When a young child goes missing, authorities can activate an Amber alert, a national notification system, and quickly spread the word to the public.

But when another vulnerable segment of the population - senior citizens - wander away, there is no such network to help locate them, and the consequences can be tragic.

Senior citizens suffering from Alzheimer's or dementia can get lost while driving or walking. Some may suffer serious injury or death before they are found.

About a dozen states have started notification systems for such cases to help find missing senior citizens. But there is currently no national program, and Congress should fix that by passing legislation.

Known as Silver Alert programs, they are modeled after the Amber Alert for missing children. Information about the missing person can be announced immediately via television and broadcast reports.

The alerts can be issued regionally or statewide. Electronic highway signs can also be activated to inform motorists.

Since the program began in Florida in October, 24 statewide alerts have been issued using electronic billboards. All of those missing were located and officials believe five were found because of the alert program.

About a dozen more states, including Pennsylvania, are considering similar programs, but federal legislation would provide funding and help states develop uniform guidelines.

In New Jersey, a bill approved in September by an Assembly committee would broadcast alerts as often as possible for the first three hours after a person is reported missing.

The House passed the National Silver Alert Act by a voice vote in September. But the Senate failed to consider a similar measure.

With an aging population of baby boomers, such programs are needed nationally, and not only in states with large concentrations of older residents.

Experts estimate that 10 million baby boomers will develop Alzheimer's and four million more will have some form of dementia or cognitive impairment.

About 60 percent of all dementia patients will wander away at some point from their home or nursing facility, according to the Alzheimer's Association. Half of those not located within 24 hours are more likely to suffer a serious injury or death.

The notification system could help save lives by getting the word out immediately. Typically, police must wait 24 hours before issuing an alert about a missing adult.

Having two notification systems could make motorists oblivious to all the alerts. But that is a risk worth taking and law enforcement should be able to figure out how to minimize false alarms.

A national Silver Alert program could potentially save lives and help keep tabs on senior citizens who may need extra protection to keep them safe.