B.C. debates ‘silver alert’ proposal to quickly find missing seniors

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
Caregiver Warren Manchess washes Paul Gregoline, in Noblesville, Ind. Gregoline, 92, and battling Alzheimer's, needs a hand with nearly every task the day brings.  (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

My email in-box regularly gets alerts from the Vancouver police asking the public's help to in locating someone with dementia who has gone missing.

Most often they're found within hours, safe and sound. But sometimes the searches end tragically, or in the case of Shin Noh not at all.

The former pastor, who was in the mid stages of Alzheimer's disease, vanished from his suburban Vancouver home last September and hasn't been seen since.

But his son, Sam Noh, thinks a "silver alert" could have prevented the tragedy.

The Opposition New Democrats have introduced a private member's bill in the B.C. legislature to set up a system similar to Amber Alerts that use electronic billboards, radio and TV announcements to help locate abducted children, The Canadian Press reports.

Sam Noh was in the legislature to see his MLA, Selina Robinson, table the Silver Alert Act.

"We're going to back this thing up 100 per cent," he told reporters at a news conference Tuesday. "Just the hell that we're going through even right now — not knowing where he is — no other Canadian family should be going through this."

[ Related: Woman’s death highlights challenge of keeping dementia patients safe ]

Noh said family friends saw his 64-year-old father walking in the neighbourhood a couple of hours after he went missing but thought nothing of it because he often went for walks in the area. Searchers didn't get that valuable piece of information until two days later when Noh's disappearance had been publicized. They might have got it sooner if a silver alert had been issued.

The silver alert idea is catching on as populations in Canada and the United States age, fuelling a sharp rise in dementia sufferers.

The Alzheimer Society of Canada said a study released last year estimated 747,000 Canadians live with some form of cognitive impairment, including dementia, a figure that includes almost 15 per cent of Canadians 65 or older. The number is expected to rise to 1.4 million by 2031.

Ontario introduced a "silver advisory" program in 2011 after Sophia Aggelonitis, then minister responsible for seniors, introduced a private member's bill, CityNews reported. The minister said her grandmother had gone missing at one point 12 years previously and was rescued from a ditch in a wooded area where she'd fallen.

Several U.S. states have silver alert programs and a bill was introduced in the U.S. Senate last December to encourage creating a nationally integrated system.

[ Related: Wandering dementia patient hit by train in White Rock ]

In British Columbia, the Alzheimer Society estimated there are 70,000 people living with dementia, the Vancouver Sun reported last month.

Studies have shown more than half of dementia sufferers wander from their homes or care facilities at least once.

A 76-year-old North Vancouver woman slipped out of her secured care home last December. She'd apparently removed the electronic bracelet that was supposed to alert staff if she left the privately-run facility.

A search of the mountainous neighbourhood turned up nothing until a hiker found Joan Warren's body in wooded Lynn Canyon Park more than a kilometre away two days later. She apparently died of hypothermia.

Though there was no silver alert, authorities used another emergency alert system and social media to ask area residents to search their properties for signs of the missing woman.

Private members' bills like the Silver Alert Act rarely become law, but CP reported Liberal Health Minister Terry Lake said he was prepared to meet the Noh family to discuss the proposed program.

Lake said he was concerned about personal privacy aspects of the concept and the danger that regular silver alerts would desensitize public response to Amber Alerts.

"We need to look at the benefits as well as the challenges of the system," the minister said.