Sorrow struck the Santa Barbara community with the death of 89-year-old Metta Thomsen last month. Thomsen was known to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, so the prospect of her safe return, when she wandered from her Cliff Drive home on June 27, diminished rapidly as the hours turned into days. Nearly a month later, she was found in a creek bed by Las Olas Drive.
Alzheimer’s dementia is a tragic reality that affects many in Santa Barbara, and with more than 9,000 people in the county estimated to have the disease, it would be naive to assume that what happened to Thomsen won’t happen again. According to Eryn Eckert of the Friendship Center dementia care facility, approximately 60 percent of people with dementia will wander at least once, and once they are wandering their survival rate decreases by 50 percent every 24 hours. Unfortunately, it only takes a moment for someone to wander off, which means that a single caregiver would need to by at their side at all times to prevent this; no one person is capable of that degree of diligence.
Fortunately, the Central Coast Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association offers a multitude of resources for those afflicted with the disease, as well as for their families and caregivers. The association offers free support services, informational consultations, and entire programs dedicated to preventing the wandering of Alzheimer’s patients. Thomsen’s fate “really brings to light the need for more education in the community,” said Alzheimer’s Association Area Director Suzanne Hunt. “Alzheimer’s is something that you can’t simply understand by instinct, you have to educate yourself in order to truly understand the issue.”
Another program in Santa Barbara goes beyond education and offers an extremely effective service for retrieving those who may wander off. The Project Lifesaver program, run with the help of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department, relies on specialized wristbands that emit a signal to help locate wandering patients. When a person is lost, a search and rescue team is deployed using equipment designed to hone in on the wristband’s signal. The use of these wristbands has yielded incredibly successful results: The average return time for wanderers involved in Project Lifesaver is just 20 to 30 minutes after the search and rescue team is deployed. The cost of the wristbands is on the expensive side, but the Lions Club has provided support for the program, making it easier for people to take advantage of the a resource that might otherwise be beyond their reach.
Meanwhile, the Friendship Center offers people with dementia a safe facility where they can spend the day and allow their family some peace of mind. Alzheimer’s patients want to live as normal a life as possible, Hunt said, and programs such as Project Lifesaver and the services at the Friendship Center and Alzheimer’s Association, allow patients and their families to feel more secure. “They still want to have independence, and they don’t always know that they need help,” Hunt said. “We want them to understand that there are resources out there.”