Editor's Note: This is part two of a four-part series exploring the challenges of Alzheimer's.
More than 60 percent of Alzheimer’s patients will wander or become lost.
Half of wanderings lead to injury if the individual is not found within 24 hours.
Seven out of 10 people with Alzheimer’s live at home.
Those statistics come from the International Association of Chiefs of Police, an organization which addresses emerging issues confronting law enforcement. One of the most pressing issues involves how law enforcement agencies handle populations affected by Alzheimer’s.
“This is going to be a growing area of concern in our communities,” said Police Chief Dan Brennan of Wheat Ridge, which has the densest population of senior in Jefferson County. “I think we’re just touching the tip of the iceberg.”
Colorado recognized these challenges when the Colorado Alzheimer’s Coordinating Council presented to the governor in 2010 the Alzheimer’s State Plan which submitted recommendations relating to the increasing incidence of Alzheimer’s in Colorado. The plan highlighted an increased response to the senior population by law enforcement agencies statewide since 2007 — after implementation of a Senior Alert, similar to an Amber Alert, which notifies the public and media when a senior has gone missing.
Since 2012, there have been 25 senior alerts, according to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.
Demands of senior care relating to dementia have also not gone unnoticed by Jefferson County’s municipal police departments. Wheat Ridge, Lakewood and Arvada, as well as the Jeffco Sheriff’s Office, have rolled out specifically designed plans and training geared toward establishing trusting relationships with senior communities and creating a better understanding of mental conditions.
“Times have changed in all kinds of ways in police work,” said Jim Lorentz a Wheat Ridge police division chief who trains officers to understand Alzheimer’s issues. “We’ve realized that we need to be problem solvers.”
The departments as well as the Jeffco Sheriff’s Office staff one or more officers and deputies who have been trained on how to spot someone with symptoms of dementia, according to the Alzheimer’s Association’s Colorado Chapter.
Officer Kelly Karinen at the Lakewood Police Department helps lead CIT Training for Lakewood officers, an Alzheimer’s training program created by the Alzheimer’s Association. The training discusses how to identify symptoms of dementia as well as communicating with people affected by Alzheimer’s. It is held twice a year for up to 30 students at a time.
Karinen estimates officers encounter a person with Alzheimer’s or some form of dementia once a week.
“It’s a little bit overwhelming at times,” she said.
But Lakewood has been proactive in enlisting their officers in a program that is voluntary.
“We’ve got people in every shift who are trained,” Karinen said.
Earlier this year, the Jeffco Sheriff’s Office announced its first Alzheimer’s Plan. Its goal is to dramatically change the way officers respond to seniors while emphasizing resources for caregivers such as Colorado LifeTrak, a personalized wristband that emits a track signal should their loved one become lost.
Investigations Division Lieutenant Bob Vette trains deputies to use behavioral interventions that provide solutions to situations, such as the one faced by officers Nellie Gisonda and John Parsons of the Wheat Ridge Police Department when they responded to a call about a missing senior. Please see accompanying sidebar
“We’re not going to leave them there,” Vette said. “So we’ve got to get creative.”
Brennan, police chief of Wheat Ridge, agreed. In his city, 18.6 percent of the population is 65 or older, making it the county’s most densely populated municipality.
“Certainty in this community, we’ll experience more of it (situations involving seniors) because our community is already ahead of some other communities in terms of its demographics,” Brennan said. “I think every year to a varying degree we’ll be looking at doing additional training and finding other ways to address some of the challenges that we have with this.”
Providing information to available resources at service organizations such as the Senior Resource Center, Jeffco Human Services, the Denver Regional Council of Governments and the Alzheimer’s Association are all part of the problem-solving process that equips officer’s with the tools they need when confronted with incidents involving citizens with dementia.
Even Community Services officers — whose sole duty is code enforcement and animal control — are trained to deal with residents who have code violations—such as overgrown weeds or peeling paint — because of their age or illness. One such officer, Laura Coddington has encountered just those types of situations with Wheat Ridge residents.
“We try to find as many options as we can,” she said. “We’re here to help them.”
If family is unavailable, then police make calls for the resident to network sources, she said.
State, county and community service organizations have created an extensive collaboration in Jefferson County supporting the idea that it takes a village to care for seniors in need.
Law enforcement is a key ingredient in a web of care in which police departments try to send the message that their presence is one to be trusted and not feared by the senior community.
Jim Lorentz, Wheat Ridge police division chief, takes his involvement in training officers to understand Alzheimer’s outside of the office by participating in annual walks hosted by the Alzheimer’s Association.
“I think it gives people who have family members, who are going through Alzheimer’s who see law enforcement engaged in those kinds of associations — it builds that trust between the community and law enforcement.” Wheat Ridge Police Chief Dan Brennan said. “It really helps us in our day-to-day interactions when officers go out, community members know that whether it’s the Wheat Ridge police department or another police department, we’re engaged and involved and trying to make our community better.”