In 2002, television, Internet and radio were overrun with news on the abduction of Elizabeth Smart. It was nearly impossible to tune into a television program without being reminded this young girl was missing.
After Smart was found, the AMBER alert, which rouses the media in the event of abduction, became a nationwide program to facilitate the recovery of missing children.
In 2006, a similar program, Silver Alert, was created to assist in the search for elderly people with cognitive disabilities, who wander and are unable to return home.
In the April issue of The Gerontologist, a Miami University research team, consisting of professors, graduate students and doctoral students, published their research on national Silver Alert programs. The team of researchers, dedicated to thoroughly understanding Silver Alert programs, divided into two groups. One group was focused on studying the characteristics of Silver Alert programs in different states. The second group concentrated on the constructionist aspect of Silver Alerts, as well as understanding the general problem of wandering that inspired Silver Alerts.
“What we’re trying to figure out is what’s going on in different states and what kind of success they’ve had,” said Jennifer Kinney, professor of sociology and gerontology on the research team.
A Silver Alert has the same infrastructure as an AMBER alert, according to Dawn Carr, Miami professor and gerontologist, who led the research team. The purpose of the AMBER and Silver alerts is to stimulate local transportation, police forces, media and community members to begin the search for this missing child or, in this case, the missing elder.
“Silver Alert programs were created because there was an expectation that another vulnerable group that needed a quick response when they went missing was people with dementia,” Carr said.
In a two-year period, 17 states employed a Silver Alert program. This hasty application of a Silver Alert program sparked the research team’s interest.
“Even minor changes to the system occur over a pretty substantial period of time,” Carr said.
In such a short period of time, it would be difficult for officials to weigh the pros and cons of this program, and decide if the program was truly necessary.
“People really haven’t questioned (the program),” Carr said. “They hear about it and say ‘absolutely.’ We want to keep these people safe. They are a population we believe deserves to be protected.”
The Silver Alert is not a uniform program. Silver Alert is a national grant program for each state to begin an individual wandering elder return procedure. Each state that implemented a type of Silver Alert program has different courses of action and requirements. For example, the studies done by the Miami research team shows Louisiana, Colorado and Florida require a person to be 60 years of age or above to qualify for Silver Alert assistance, whereas Illinois, North Carolina and Oklahoma merely require a person to be 18 years of age. The study also shows the state of Texas not only requires a person to be over or of the age of 65, but they must also have been diagnosed with a cognitive disability by their physician.
“All this program really needs is a caretaker to say is ‘hey this person has dementia and they’re not where they are supposed to be,'” Carr said.
Other programs of this nature, such as Safe Return, are stricter and require elders to be registered beforehand. The benefit of registration is it would allow the elder to give their permission to be found using a Silver Alert.
“Very few people take the initiative and register themselves,” Carr said.
Gina Petonito, professor of sociology and gerontology, worked on the research on the constructionist aspect of Silver Alert programs.
“To study constructionism is to study how people define, or give meaning to, a particular idea in the world,” Petonito said.
Petonito studied the discourse associated with Silver Alert programs and wandering in newspapers, and found society tended to place its focus on the caregiver.
“Elderly people are not a part of it,” Petonito said. “They weren’t interviewed or talked to. They were just physically present.”
The potential wanderers in question are those elders in the early and middle stages of Alzheimers and other cognitive disabilities, according to Petonito.
“These people are capable of speaking for themselves,” Petonito said, whose father suffers from middle stage Alzheimers. “They can say what they want, what they think and what works for them. Those in the last stages of Alzheimers, who can’t really speak for themselves, are bedridden and won’t be wandering at all.”
Silver Alerts are meant to protect elders with cognitive disabilities but they also help give caregivers peace of mind.
“Taking care of a person with a cognitive disability can be stressful,” Kinney said.
Although Silver Alerts seek to protect elders with cognitive disabilities, Silver Alerts may in fact provide an opportunity for those same elders to be exploited, Carr explained.
Much like an AMBER alert, a Silver Alert grants the public access to a person’s personal information in order to locate them. The broadcasting of a child’s personal information is deemed acceptable because a child is in the care of someone else. But is it acceptable to give out an adult’s private information, even though they are technically under someone else’s care?
Silver Alerts use information like a person’s medical history, address and license plate number in order to find them.
“This puts them in a position to be taken advantage of,” Carr said. “Let’s face it. Some people get found and it’s very possible they wouldn’t have been found without the Silver Alert. But that’s where you say, ‘Is the benefit worthy of the cost of sharing that information?'”
Lydia Manning, a graduate student on the research team, is supportive of Miami’s research team on the topic.
“The Silver Alert project has good intentions, but needs to be examined at the scholarly level to ensure we are truly respecting the rights of older adults,” Manning said. “Good social policy is smart social policy, policy that is informed by research.”
Whether Silver Alert programs are more effective than typical search and rescue procedures is unknown. Petonito provided the example of two elderly women who went missing in Lebanon, Ohio. They were missing for more than six months when their car and bodies were found in an embankment off the highway.
“Would a Silver Alert have helped find these women?” Petonito asked.
The answer is … we don’t know.
“The next big step we’re hoping to accomplish is a collection of data about the nature of the problem of wandering itself,” Carr said. “At this point there is no national data on the problem of wandering for the adult population.”