Brunswick joining program to track wanderers

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BRUNSWICK — Families of people with conditions like autism or Alzheimer’s disease will soon have access to a new tool to safeguard loved ones who wander off alone. 

Thanks to a $2,000 donation from resident Ben McDorr, the Brunswick Police Department is going to join the national Project Lifesaver, which helps locate people who have wandered by electronically tracking them.

Searches for people who have wandered off can last hours, or even days, and there have been tragic cases when rescuers haven’t found the missing in enough time to save them.

In some cases, autistic children wander because they need to fill a sensory impulse, regardless of their safety, said Detective Richard Cutliffe, who runs the Police Department’s Developmental Disability Program. 

Frequently, kids are especially drawn to water, he said, which creates the added risk of drowning.

In 2008, Brunswick experienced such a tragedy, when 6-year-old Ashley Brock drowned in a neighbor’s swimming pool after disappearing from a family get-together. 

Harsh weather and other hazards, like traffic, are also significant threats to the safety of children and adults who wander, Cutliffe said. If a child is missing near a lake, or if an adult wanders during a driving snowstorm, every minute counts, he said.

The goal of Project Lifesaver is to bring down to the bare minimum the time it takes to find a loved one by electronically tracking them.

People enrolled in the program receive a small wristwatch-style radio transmitter that they can wear on their wrist or ankle. If the client goes missing, a parent or loved one alerts the local authorities, who can track the client down through the transmitter’s signal.

According to Project Lifesaver, it takes 30 minutes on average to locate a client wearing a transmitter, a fraction of the time needed to organize a search-and-rescue operation.

Since it started 15 years ago, the organization has grown to more than 1,300 participating agencies in the U.S., Canada and Australia, and has performed almost 2,900 searches without serious injuries or fatalities.

In Maine, the Project Lifesaver trend is growing: Auburn and Ogunquit are already members of the network.

Ben and Samantha McDorr, parents of a daughter with Asperger’s syndrome, have been lobbying the town to adopt Project Lifesaver and started fundraising for the program on the crowd-sourcing GoFundMe website late last year.

Combined with a previous $5,000 donation, the McDorrs’ contribution gives Brunswick enough start-up funding to get the system off the ground.

Clients are expected to cover the cost of the device, about $300, and periodic battery replacement. 

While only a handful of residents have pushed to adopt the system, Police Capt. Mark Waltz said he expects many others to recognize how important the system might be when it comes online, hopefully by January 2015. 

Although the program can provide a critical safeguard, it shouldn’t be mistaken for a catch-all solution, Cutliffe said. 

Because cognitive impairment affects people uniquely, families need to fit resources like Project Lifesaver into their own safety strategies, said Laurie Trenholm, executive director of the Maine Alzheimer’s Association. 

For example, some people might have the tendency to remove jewelry or watches, which would erase the usefulness of the tracking device.

“It’s not just an automatic, one thing works for everyone,” Trenholm  said.

Wandering affects approximately 60 percent of people who suffer from dementia, Trenholm said. 

Frequently, people with dementia may have a distorted sense of time and place, which may lead them to seek out specific locations they have a connection to, like an old family home or childhood school, she explained. 

Often, while the person may have a clear idea of where they are going, they may not be familiar with their surroundings and become easily disoriented and lost, she added. 

“People are returning to a place that was once very purposeful to them,” Trenholm said, “not just randomly walking all over.”

Repeated instances of wandering have led Maine to implement a Silver Alert system that waives the 24-hour waiting period to start a search if the person is known to have cognitive impairment, Trenholm said. 

The Alzheimer’s Association also operates the Safe Return program, which uses emergency medical identification to help locate people who has wandered. 

While safety should be a top priority, it also needs to be balanced with a consideration of a person’s quality of life, Trenholm said.

“It’s our challenge as caregivers to help families put strategies in place to make sure they stay safe,” Trenholm said. “That doesn’t mean they have to just stay and never leave the house.”

Peter L. McGuire can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow him on Twitter @mcguiremidcoast.