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Even the youngest state in the nation grows old eventually. Are we ready for it?

More Silver Alerts are going out for missing older Utahns, but do they work?

Interstate 15,  I-15, looking north from the Vine Street overpass, Murray, Utah, Nov. 21, 2020
Elaine Clark
Silver Alerts are posted on freeways in Utah, like this one. Messaging tells drivers to visit the Bureau of Criminal Identification website to get more information.

It can be a terrifying experience for an older family member to disappear.

Denise Larsen’s dad went missing a few times over the decade he had Alzheimer’s Disease. She remembers they had to put a special lock on the door in the Orem house. “But he was too intelligent and he figured things out,” she said.

The late Emil Malmberg got a scholarship to MIT when he was 16. But once Alzheimer’s took its toll, he couldn’t find his way from the kitchen to the bedroom. And he would wander off — he had just moved to Utah and was looking for his previous home.

That’s when Larsen would get a call from her mom.

“Just panic. It was awful,” she said. “And I felt guilty that I wasn’t there to take care of him.”

During his time with Alzheimer’s, Emil Malmberg would get confused and lost. His daughter, Denise Larsen, said this was partly because all the houses in the area looked the same.
Courtesy Denise Larsen
During his time with Alzheimer’s, Emil Malmberg would get confused and lost. His daughter, Denise Larsen, said this was partly because all the houses in the area looked the same.

When an older Utahn goes missing, highway signs light up with information to alert people. The Silver Alert program started in 2019 after Malmberg died, but Larsen wishes the program had been around.

“I think it would have been a real blessing. It would have relieved a lot of stress.”

Silver Alerts can only be activated for a missing person over the age of 60 or someone with dementia. They go out to news outlets, police stations in the area and interstate signs in a 5-mile radius. That can be broadened if there’s reason to believe the person could have gone farther.

These alerts are only going to get more important as Utah’s population ages, said Jeremy Cunningham, public policy director at the Utah Alzheimer’s Association — 60% of aging adults with dementia will wander.

Cunningham worked on the Silver Alert legislation and said information about the missing needs to get out as soon as possible because a person can become dehydrated in a matter of hours.” Or in the winter, someone could freeze to death. Once an older individual has been missing for 24 hours, Cunningham said the chances of finding them safe are cut in half.

Part of the public safety toolbox

The number of statewide alerts has doubled since the program started. Last year, there were just over 100. It’s hard to say if that’s because it’s being used more or if more people go missing.

Sgt. Nick Dupaix guesses it’s a bit of both. He works for the Provo Police Department and said Silver Alerts make “it easier for us as law enforcement officers to be able to get information out to the public. And it helps us be able to find that person a lot more easily.”

For example, when someone is found wandering and confused, an officer can check the active alerts database to figure out who that person is.

Dupaix said Utah County police departments share alerts with each other and post them on social media.

“We can only provide so many bodies to actually look for things,” he said. “Generally, it's our citizens that end up helping us find these missing persons,” he said.

But there’s no data to indicate whether people are actually paying attention when a Silver Alert gets posted.

The state does not track how many people were found directly because of a Silver Alert. Officials said police don’t usually ask for that information, and they haven’t gotten any complaints about the system. Despite not knowing how well the program is working, Cunningham from the Alzheimer’s Association said it’s worth it.

“The fact that it doesn’t cost the state a lot of money, the fact that we're going to need this in the future even more … I would rather err on the side of caution,” he said.

The 2019 legislation had a one-time price tag of $4,900.

Silver vs. Amber

One thing the Silver Alert program does not do is push out notices to phones, like Amber Alerts for missing children. That’s for a few reasons, said Mandy Biesinger with the state Bureau of Criminal Identification.

“The element of danger and immediate harm, including death to an abducted child, is what an Amber Alert is dealing with.”

While Biesinger acknowledged older adults could also be in danger — she said push alerts could lose their effectiveness if they’re used too frequently “because the public will sit and ignore it or not understand the urgency that exists.”

And Sgt. Dupaix worries that if the information went out to the community more broadly, it would overwhelm police. “More and more people coming to the police department asking more and more questions, which sometimes can hinder finding this missing person,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean that police don’t want the public’s help. Dupaix said if someone finds an older person who seems lost and confused, contact law enforcement.

Ciara is a native of Utah and KUER's Morning Edition host
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