Safely Home from Australia

I recently returned from a trip to Australia where I attended the country’s first conference dedicated to missing persons. I met interesting, determined people and had the opportunity to see what our friends Down Under are doing toward solving the conundrum of missing and unidentified persons in their part of the world.

Australia is a country roughly about the same size as the United States, but with slightly less than 23 million people. By contrast the USA has a population of about 314 million. Divided into eight states, each has its own police. Queensland, which hosted the conference, has 16,000 police officers; the NYPD has more than twice that and it’s simply one department in one city in the country.

Australia is making some pretty impressive strides toward recognizing the missing persons issue. One innovative program that really impressed me was the Safely Home initiative.

Safely Home is a way for caretakers of Alzheimer’s and dementia patients to help ensure their loved ones can be tracked and returned to their care, should they wander. As every law enforcement officer is aware, wandering is one of the hallmarks of mental disorders that affect the elderly. It’s the main prompt behind the Silver Alert system that proliferates in many states, based on the Amber Alert system developed for children.

For a small fee, Safely Home places the person on a national registry that can quickly connect the individual to his or her caretaker. The registrant is fitted with a metal bracelet with a unique identifying number and a national telephone contact number. When an officer finds the individual, he or she can check the elderly person’s bracelet (which cannot be removed by conventional means) and call the national hotline. The hotline will then put the LEO in touch with the family or caretaker so he or she and the bracelet-holder can be reunited.

Many elderly go missing in the United States and are never seen again. Of those, a large number enter the homeless population. My own mother suffered from vascular dementia. One day, she packed a small bag and, with no identification and just enough money for a one-way bus ticket, trekked to the bus station and bought a ticket to Savannah, Ga. She didn’t know a soul there, but had recently seen some photographs of the place and decided to go.

She couldn’t have told you where she belonged. And at the rate her mind was disintegrating, she was so paranoid that she wouldn’t have trusted the police or any official. My mother was on her way to becoming a street person.

Fortunately for us, a friend of our family saw her entering the bus station and called us, so we were able to forestall her disappearing act. If she’d been successful, we would have been dealing with a nightmare. I am not sure we would ever have found our mother.

But Safely Home helps in that regard. And we have a similar program right here through the Alzheimer’s Association called “Safe Return.” For a fee, afflicted family members can be registered in a confidential nationwide database accessed by matching up information on a bracelet. I wish I’d known about this when my mom was alive.

I’m betting a lot of law enforcement, as well as families of individuals suffering from dementia, are not aware of this program’s existence. I also think it would be a great program to extend to the mentally ill. Think how many tragedies could be avoided.

Solutions to current problems are out there. It’s simply a matter of connecting the dots.

Editor’s note: Further information on the Safe Return program can be found at