New alert system helps find lost elders

Panic washed through Sandra L. Smith when she noticed her 83-year-old mother was missing.

Her mom, Sylvia, lived alone across the street because she liked the independence, but her daughters essentially cared for her full time. Smith's sister checked on her not long before, but by dinner time, their mom was gone. The sisters frantically searched their neighborhood to no avail, then called the police.

"I felt lost," Smith said, tearing up as she recalled the experience from five years ago. "I don't know what I would have done if I lost her that way. It still is emotional."

Her mother had wandered about two miles during the early summer months, until a hotel worker saw the woman in the parking lot near Boulder Highway and brought her inside. She was confused, unable to remember her own name.

The good Samaritan and police were able to reunite Sylvia with her daughters unscathed, but not all stories of missing elders end that way.

With the hope of bringing more safe returns of missing seniors, a new alert system, dubbed Silver Alert, is set to start in January. The Statewide Alert System for the Safe Return of Missing Endangered Older Persons, which passed unanimously in both houses before Gov. Brian Sandoval signed it last weekend, relies on a modified version of the Amber Alert system. Nevada will join more than 25 other states in implementing a Silver Alert.

Nevada has no statewide data on missing elders, but advocates of the bill estimate that dozens of older persons go missing each month.

"I personally think with our growing senior population, we have an epidemic of missing seniors," said Nevada Broadcasters Association President Bob Fisher, who was instrumental in developing both the Amber and Silver alerts.

Fisher said he recommends that the Silver Alert use AlertID . AlertID, an instant communication system between law enforcement and citizens using the Internet and text messaging, started in Washoe County as a pilot program this year. The system allows authorities to send alerts to citizens in specific neighborhoods on crime, natural disasters or missing people. People must sign up on the website,, to enroll for the alert system.

The emergency alert system on highway info-monitors and TV broadcast interruptions are designed for extreme weather, abducted children or homeland security issues, so in an effort not to make the warnings too common, a smaller notification system is required for Silver Alert, law enforcement and Department of Public Safety officials said.

With endangered elders often unable to wander too far away, the smaller alert system targeting specific neighborhoods, such as AlertID, will work, advocates of the bill said.

"Let's use the ears and the eyes of the public to help us," said Joann Bongiorno, a representative of the Silver Haired Legislative Forum, which lobbied for the bill. "Every year we have these people that wander off, sometimes never to be found again, or sometimes when they're found, it's too late. When they do wander off, they're without food, without shelter, without their medications. As long as we have this system in place, why not use it?"

Contact Jessica Fryman at or 702-383-0264.