What I learned when a Reston man with Alzheimer’s disease went missing

October 16, 2013

On a recent Saturday morning, a 78-year-old Reston man drove to the local Starbucks for his daily cup of black coffee. He didn’t come home. His wife said he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and had been allowed to drive only to the nearby Starbucks every morning and to church on Sundays. This was the first time he ever had a problem with that.

What followed over the next 20 hours was a true learning experience for the man’s family and friends.

First, the Fairfax County police launched an all-out search for the man almost immediately after being notified that he’d been missing for about three hours. This involved more than 60 police officers, members of the fire department, the police helicopter, the police bloodhound, the police bike team, and a fire department boat. A large command post was established at Lake Anne Elementary School. Cruisers with license-plate readers were deployed. Everywhere you turned in Reston, there was an officer on foot, parked at an intersection, or driving through the neighborhoods, cul de sacs and parking lots.

Country music star Glen Campbell, with his wife Kim on Capitol Hill last year, publicly announced he has Alzheimer's disease and has become an ambassador for research into finding a cure. (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)
Country music star Glen Campbell, with his wife Kim on Capitol Hill last year, publicly announced he has Alzheimer’s disease and has become an ambassador for research into finding a cure. (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)

This was not an unusual response by the police. “In 2012, we responded to 107 ‘Critical Missing Person’ or ‘Critical Missing Adult’ calls,” Fairfax police spokeswoman Mary Ann Jennings said, and this year the total so far is 165 such calls.

“Searching the narratives of the incident reports for mention of Alzheimer’s, we found 23 cases in 2012, 17 so far this year,” she said. Most of those missing cases involved some or all of the search resources listed above, Jennings said.

Conclusion: Searches for lost or missing adults are occupying more and more time and resources at the local law enforcement level.

Second, banks cannot necessarily tell you if or where a person’s debit or credit card is being used. Both the police and the man’s wife called his bank, hoping to find any sort of location where the man might have spent money, and were told that information was unavailable. Detectives involved in the search said that was a completely unsurprising response. The man did not have an online account set up. But even if he did, the bank told his wife on Monday, the exact addresses of where he used the card were not available.

Debit and credit cards “are not designed to track people’s whereabouts,” said Nessa Feddis, a senior vice president for consumer protection and payments with the American Bankers Association, “they’re designed to facilitate financial transactions.” Transactions on weekends are even trickier because banks (and many businesses) use that time to upgrade or reset their computer networks, and some smaller banks (such as the missing man’s) outsource their weekend work to third-party companies that can’t access that information, Feddis said. There are also privacy concerns in terms of sharing someone’s financial information. So even in an age where our expectations are that all data is instantly available, banks tread carefully, Feddis said.

But having an online account would have provided at least some information about the card’s use sometimes almost instantly, sometimes delayed, depending on the bank and the place where the card was used.

Conclusion: Get an online account, which could provide clues to a missing person’s whereabouts when the bank itself may not be able to help you.

Third, cell-phone locator technology is not foolproof, yet. The man’s phone company reported to police that the older-style flip phone was “pinging” in the vicinity of the south side of Lake Anne, based on its location relative to nearby cell towers. Officers and the police search dog swarmed the area. The phone was never found and had clearly become separated from its owner.

Conclusion: Do not rely on phones to find people.

Fourth, the Fairfax County sheriff runs the “Project Lifesaver” program, in which a person who wears a wrist or ankle band can be promptly tracked down by its radio waves if lost. This would have saved much time and angst all around for the missing man, his family and the police. But there is a significant ten-month wait to get on it, Lt. Steve Elbert of the sheriff’s office said, due to funding issues.

Conclusion: If someone getting lost is a potential problem for you, sign up for Project Lifesaver now.

There is a relatively happy ending here. According to debit-card receipts he kept in his car, it turns out the man had driven to Baltimore (without his cell phone), where he once saw many Baltimore Orioles games and where his brother lives. He got gas and a quarter-pounder with cheese on Saturday night in Baltimore. Then he drove down to Washington, got a Coke from a McDonald’s on New York Avenue, and was found there by D.C. police around 7:30 a.m. Sunday when he ran out of gas. He does not remember going to Baltimore or why he would have. He was checked out at Howard University Hospital, where a nurse told him to frame his driver’s license, and a doctor found he was in fine physical shape.

He will no longer drive, and his family is trying to get him into Project Lifesaver. Meanwhile, another Fairfax County man disappeared this past Saturday. And the public safety/modern technology machinery swung into action again.

Full disclosure: The missing Reston man is my Dad.

Tom Jackman is a native of Northern Virginia and has been covering the region for The Post since 1998.
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Mark Berman · October 15, 2013