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Law enforcement program designed to help keep Alzheimer's patients safe

By Staff
Tracy B. Cieniewicz, Hartselle Enquirer
Even under the best of care, whether at home or at a care facility, there is always the possibility a loved one with Alzheimer's disease may wander away and become lost.
That reality is what inspired the Mental Health Association in Morgan County to start Alz-Safe in 1997, a free program that makes identifying and locating lost Alzheimer's patients more efficient for law enforcement.
Decatur Police Department was the first agency MHA teamed with when Alz-Safe began, but Hartselle Police Department and the Morgan County Sheriff's Department have since joined the campaign.
"Alzheimer's patients are always at risk for wandering away," MHA Director of Alzheimer's Programs Nina Mae Blackburn said. "Like the Red Cross tells us to be prepared for a fire or natural disaster, registering with Alz-Safe is a beginning point for Alzheimer patient caregivers to be prepared for this."
Caregivers can visit the MHA, Decatur Police Department, Hartselle Police Department or Morgan County Sheriff's Department to pickup an Alz-Safe registration packet. The application requires pertinent medical information, including medications taken by the patient, basic identification information, contact information and, most importantly, a recent photo of the patient.
"The least little bit of information can be so helpful because an Alzheimer's patient may not be able to tell someone who they are or if they need medical attention," Blackburn explained. "And because an Alzheimer's patient changes so much so quickly, it's very important to keep their Alz-Safe information and photo updated with police each year."
Each person registered with Alz-Safe has their information and photo entered into a data bank designed solely for the program, which can only be accessed by members of the participating law enforcement agency if an emergency occurs. With nearly 60,000 Alabamians currently living with Alzheimer's disease, the Alz-Safe program is an invaluable resource for law enforcement.
"Those first hours are critical," Morgan County Sheriff Greg Bartlett explained. "This helps to find and I.D. people quickly."
Terri Norwood of Hartselle, MHA director of rape response programs, said she has always had a passion for the field of geriatrics. Having worked as director of Sierra Springs Retirement Assisted Living Community in Hartselle for two years, Norwood said she also fully realizes the importance of the Alz-Safe program.
"You just never know if it (wandering away) will happen," Norwood said. "I wanted to do something to help in case it did."
Norwood recently purchased and donated three HP Photosmart M305 digital cameras with HP Instant Share to the Morgan County Sheriff's Department, making one camera available for each shift to use in case a person is found and needs to be quickly identified. The cameras can also be used to register patients to the Alz-Safe program. Both Decatur and Hartselle Police Departments already have digital cameras in use for the program.
"I purchased the three identical cameras at Hartselle Wal-Mart," Norwood recalled. "I wanted them all to be the same so each shift could be trained once and each officer would know who to use them. I told (Manager) Becky Bibb what the cameras were for and she got Wal-Mart to donate $50 towards the purchase price. She understood the importance of the program because her mother has Alzheimer's."
MHA Executive Director Sue H. Brantley said Alz-Safe not only helps law enforcement find missing Alzheimer patients, but it also prepares them in understanding the patient's behavior, possible communication problems, and general characteristics.
"I don't think there's any program better than this in the country," Brantley said.
For Alz-Safe registration information, call Hartselle Police Department at 773-6534, ext. 0, Morgan County Sheriff's Department at 301-1174, or Decatur Police Department at 341-4660.
MHA offers additional free Alzheimer's programs, including a family support group, dementia education and training for caregivers and concerned citizens and businesses, a lending library, Faith in Action dementia education for church families, Memories in the Making art programs, support for Wesley Elder Care's adult day program, and more.
For more information on these programs or Alz-Safe, contact the Mental Health Association in Morgan County at 353-1160.