Program helps locate dementia patients

Alisa Boswell

There was silence as Portales Police Department Animal Control Sgt. Wally Chambers focused on static coming from a radio in his hand. Chambers was participating in an exercise to find people suffering from dementia who are lost.

Project Lifesaver is a program that trains first-responders to locate people with the disease who wander from home or get lost.

Capt. Arlis Rhodes of the Dona Ana County Sheriff’s Office said there are five million Alzheimer’s patients worldwide and 59 percent of those wander, with 72 percent of wanderers doing it repeatedly.

“I figured out once you find that first initial ping, you can find anything,” Chambers told Rhodes, who was training Portales police personnel Friday morning.

Rhodes was training several Portales Police Department personnel Thursday and Friday in how to use Project Lifesaver equipment.

Project Lifesaver began in 1999 in Chesapeake, Va., and came to New Mexico in 2002. The Portales PD will be one of 10 New Mexico organizations to be involved with the program.

“The reason Chesapeake started this is they were realizing dementia patients don’t think the way we do and their failure rate with finding dementia patients was high,” Rhodes said. “There are other programs available for this kind of thing but they’re all cell phone and GPS related, which means if your cell phone doesn’t work, you don’t get a signal.”

Rhodes said Project Lifesaver uses transmitters in the form of a wristband, worn by the patient, which transmits on a particular frequency. The department then finds the lost patient by tracking them with an antenna set to the frequency of the patient’s wristband.

“Any organization that has started Project Lifesaver has had 100 percent success,” Rhodes said. “And it’s a comfort to family members because if they lose an elderly person, they know they have professionally trained law enforcement to get involved.”

Rhodes hid seven transmitters around the Eastern New Mexico University campus Friday for Portales police personnel to find for their field training.

He said Project Lifesaver has rescued 2,457 people in the U.S., Canada and Australia with an average search time of 22 minutes, whereas other search and rescue programs have an average of nine hours.

A Portales resident with Alzheimer’s was missing for more than a week in November 2010, then was hospitalized briefly after being found beneath a trailer home.

“We’ve had a couple of issues come up where residents have had situations where people have come up lost and we were lucky enough that they ended well, but it made us realize that there are people in our community who need this,” said Portales Police Deputy Chief Lonnie Berry. “We had people in the department who were interested in training in it. This program is all volunteer and I’m really proud of their response to the program.”