Shawn’s Story

The BC Silver Alert project is close to my heart because someone in my family living with dementia wandered away from her her home on the coldest day of winter. Police, Emergency Responders, Search and Rescue volunteers, family, friends and the community-at-large rallied to search for my Aunt but were initially unable to determine the direction she was headed, which left a lot of ground to cover in the search.

When someone with dementia goes missing it is absolutely vital to locate them as soon as possible. Experts agree that searching for a person with dementia is one of the most difficult search and rescue operations. Individuals with dementia don’t think like us because dementia has rewired how their brains work. Research suggests that once a person with dementia starts walking they will continue to follow that direction no matter what obstacle lies in the way. It’s as if they are following an internal map that leads them like birds following the magnetic field of Earth.

As it turns out someone did see my Aunt walking in a regional park. Unfortunately, the eyewitness didn’t realize she was lost or missing until hearing a report on that evening’s newscast–6 hours later.

The time in between knowing and not knowing which direction my Aunt was headed contributed to her demise. Had we been able to locate her general whereabouts sooner we would have had a much greater chance of finding her alive. Thankfully the witness did call authorities and let them know about the sighting, which refocused search efforts in a specific area and ultimately lead to the recovery of her remains.

When my Aunt went missing technology played a central role in her search. The news media were very supportive in reporting the story, the RCMP activated a Reverse-911 system to notify residents with a phone message requesting them to be on the look out for her. Social media also played a role in helping spread the word. It was heartwarming to see how many people cared about her.

I believe people care because dementia affects everyone.

The Canadian Alzheimer’s Society notes that as of 2011 there were 747,000 Canadians living with cognitive impairment, including dementia. 14.9% of Canadians over the age of 65 have dementia—that’s roughly 1 out of every 7 people and the risk for dementia doubles every five years after age 65. As our society ages we will be dealing with missing and lost adults much more frequently.

Governments around the globe are starting to develop more intuitive notification systems designed to help locate missing people with dementia as soon possible. The Province of British Columbia has yet to adopt a standard response to a missing person with dementia. We believe it’s time to implement such a system and BC Silver Alert is a system that we believe can play a role in sharing information with as many people and as quickly as possible.

BC Silver Alert is modelled on the Amber Alert program. It follows clear protocols, established by independent 3rd parties and it is designed as an early warning system. It is not a replacement for official processes already in place, and is instead meant to support the actions of first responders and search-and-rescue personnel.

The sources of our data are the bulletins released by Police Organizations across Metro Vancouver. We use a combination of technology and human verification to authenticate and rebroadcast missing person bulletins. The concept is simple: the earlier the public can know that someone with dementia has gone missing the earlier they can start looking for that person. Social media is a natural fit for this type of notification system because it quickly connects community networks and helps spread the word.

We have launched this proof of concept to demonstrate how the system works, and we hope to expand it across the Province. In order for that to happen we will require broad community support and ultimately the input of the Provincial Government. If this system works and helps find a missing person sooner then we will have fulfilled our goal.

We hope individuals, volunteers, community leaders, media outlets, government officials and constituency representatives take notice, follow our feed AND retweet/repost/forward the message to help get the word out. We are all in this together and the more we work together as a community the sooner we can find and return people living with dementia to their loved ones.

The outcome for my family wasn’t what we hoped for, yet throughout the ordeal I was amazed and impressed by the reaction of the community.