Canada cool so far to the idea of Silver Alert system for missing seniors

A push to create a national Silver Alert system that would attempt to help locate elderly individuals suffering from diseases like Alzheimer's and dementia has so far been met with a cool response from jurisdictions across the country.

Even the Alzheimer's Society of Canada has expressed a lack of enthusiasm for a system — similar to Amber Alerts for missing children — that could send out information to the public through smartphones, email, radio and TV networks.  

"We aren't endorsing them because there isn't robust evidence that they actually work," said Mary Schulz, director of education of the Alzheimer Society of Canada.

But Schulz also noted that alert fatigue might be an issue in terms of "how much people will actually pay attention if they're being bombarded with Silver and Amber and who knows what … other kinds of alerts."

"We need really robust academic research to be done on these kinds of alerts before, I think, we would invest," she said.

According to the Alzheimer Society of Canada, an estimated 564,000 Canadians are living with dementia. By 2031, this figure is expected to rise to 937,000 — an increase of 66 per cent.

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Sam Noh, an advocate of Silver Alerts, spoke to CBC News recently about implementing such a system. His father disappeared in Coquitlam, B.C., in 2013 and never returned. Noh said he heard people had seen his dad in the first day he went missing, but didn't know how to report it.

"The chance of survival decreases after 24 hours. If we had the Silver Alert program, we could quickly spread that information about the disappearance," Noh told CBC British Columbia's All Points West

Sophia Aggelonitis, a former Ontario provincial cabinet minister who was responsible for the seniors portfolio, founded Silver Alert Canada and has been pushing for a nationwide program.

"Despite information about prevention strategies and the use of locating devices, seniors still go missing," said Aggelonitis, whose own grandmother once wandered away. "A Silver Alert would be an addition to ongoing strategies."

How such a system would work, and whether it would be similar to the Amber Alert system, would be up to the regions and dependent on the situation, she said.

"If a senior walks away, takes their car or is likely to travel by bus etc., each situation would determine the right type of alert to be issued," said Aggelonitis. "I believe the best authorities to determine the type alert protocol would be the police." 

Many U.S. states use system

Many states in the U.S. employ such a system, each with its own criteria as when to issue such alerts. In California, for example, an alert will only be issued if a missing person is 65 or older, developmentally disabled or cognitively impaired, and the law enforcement agency has determined that the person has gone missing under "unexplained or suspicious circumstances."

States will use various means of informing the public that a person is missing, including "be on the lookout" broadcasts to other law enforcement, through the media, as well as dynamic-message signs next to highways.

But many of the systems in the United States are different from Amber Alerts in that they don't sound an alarm on people's mobile devices — something about which people have complained in Canada

To combat the issue of alert fatigue, some, like Noh, have lobbied for a localized or geo-targeted approach to Silver Alerts. In places like Florida, for example, the local law enforcement agency will activate a local or regional Silver Alert and determine the areas for activation.

Tina Lovgreen/CBC

But Silver Alerts have yet to become popular in Canada.

In 2017, Alberta and Manitoba amended their Missing Persons Act to allow for Silver Alerts. The amendments allow police to activate alerts in certain circumstances involving vulnerable people with cognitive impairments and to provide the public with information about a missing individual.

Winnipeg Police Service Sgt. Rick McDougall said in the past year, their force has issued two such alerts and both were successful in helping locate the missing individuals.

In one case, an older gentleman had driven to a local shopping mall and then went missing. His vehicle was recovered but he was nowhere to be found and police later learned he was suffering from a cognitive impairment. 

"We issued media releases, as well as social media releases, immediately under the Silver Alert. And actually as a result of that, [he was] located … quite some distance away from where [he] went missing."

Very different than Amber Alerts

McDougall stressed that the system is very different than Amber Alerts in that it disseminates information about a missing person to the public through the media and social media — and not through texts and alarms via mobile phones. Nor does it automatically interrupt public broadcasts. However, he notes, the media can choose to broadcast the information if they deem it appropriate.

Although Alberta now allows for Silver Alerts, the Calgary Police Service has so far not used them. A spokesperson with the force said their missing persons unit classifies elderly missing persons as high risk, especially those who have a history of Alzheimer's or dementia, and that their cases are prioritized in regards to resources and response.

In Ontario, the provincial government explored the idea in 2011 but later shelved the proposal. In a statement to CBC News, the Ontario Ministry for Seniors and Accessibility said if someone with dementia goes missing, police treat it as an emergency, and if an alert is required, "the police will issue one similar to what was previously known as a 'Silver Advisory.'"

Yet support for a nationwide system has failed to gain traction, says Aggelonitis.

Her organization launched an online petition for a Silver Alert system that was presented to the House of Commons last February. Months later, then-Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale responded, saying that the federal government was instead developing a national dementia strategy.

Goodale also noted that officials who oversee the National Public Alerting System policy, which details the types of emergency alerts that can be sent through the system, had not been approached by any province or territory to amend their policy and utilize the system for Silver Alerts.

Sophia Aggelonitis/Twitter

Schulz, from the Alzheimer Society of Canada, said that instead of alerts, more focus should be placed on educating families and caregivers to be more proactive in ways to prevent their loved ones from going missing.

People also need to be more aware or look for signs that someone may be in trouble, she said, such as seeming to be out of place or perhaps being inappropriately dressed on a cold day.

"That societal issue is one that is really growing in momentum, where we are starting to appreciate that if there is someone who's walking around in a housecoat in –25 degree weather, that there should be somebody that we can call," said Schulz.

The Alzheimer Society has a partnership with MedicAlert, she said, which makes it rather simple if you encounter someone who seems in distress: Simply call the number on the bracelet. 

"These kinds of strategies — we need to make it easy for people to be helpful," said Schulz.

Aggelonitis agrees that providing information about wandering-prevention strategies and locating devices is paramount, especially when someone is newly diagnosed.

"However, I also believe that these initiatives, in combination with a Silver Alert public notification system, will help find seniors … and isn't that what we all want?"