Manitoba MLA to table bill calling for Silver Alert to help find missing seniors

The family of a Winnipeg senior who went missing for more than 12 hours is welcoming the idea of an alert system that would notify the public faster when elders or people with cognitive disabilities disappear.

System for seniors modelled off of Amber Alert to find abducted children

The family of a Winnipeg senior who went missing for more than 12 hours is welcoming the idea of an alert system that would notify the public faster when elders or people with cognitive disabilities disappear.

Next week, Brandon East MLA Len Isleifson plans to introduce a private members bill in the Manitoba Legislature proposing the Silver Alert system, designed to find people with disabilities, elderly and vulnerable missing persons. 

Like the Amber Alert system used to track missing children, a Silver Alert would widely notify the public when a senior goes missing or wanders.

Victor Johnson, whose mother Bessie Johnson wandered away from her care home in Riverbend in 2014, said he thinks the idea of a faster, more wide-spread message is a good one.

"It would be much better. It'd be really good," he said. "Because then you're not so tense and so worried and your mind's not playing tricks, thinking the worst. It'd help in knowing there's more out there. More people looking, and watching."

The 94-year-old was found the following morning seeking shelter in a garage across town in St. Vital.

Johnson said the 12 hours she was missing were "tense," and no one in his family could sleep.

"For people at that age, if it happens in the winter time and it's a cold winter night, they could freeze," he said. 

"The way we have now with the internet, they could also put it out to the public faster on their telephones and media. So that more people would be looking for them."

In a similar case last summer, 80-year-old Maria Machel was missing for nearly 30 hours and drove all the way to the border before being found in an A&W in Selkirk, much to her family's relief. 

In both cases, families of the seniors said they were confused.

The son of an elderly woman who went missing from her care home is relieved his mother is all right. 1:52

Volunteer system already in use in B.C.

There are more than 22,000 Manitobans living with Alzheimer's disease or another form of dementia, according to  the Alzheimer Society of Manitoba. The society predicts that number will nearly double by 2038. 

In B.C., search and rescue volunteer and software developer Michael Coyle founded a volunteer Silver Alert program with the son of Shin Noh, an elderly man who had dementia and disappeared – never to be found – in 2013.  

Coyle's program scans police websites and media releases specifically for missing people with dementia and cognitive issues. 

"They're the kind of person who may not know where they are, know how to ask for help or recognize that they need help. And that kind of makes them in a particularly hazardous situation," said Coyle.

He says people subscribe to their feeds and follow them on social media. They take the media release and city and boil it down to something like a tweet or a media post with the hashtag #BCsilveralert. 

A "silveralert" notification lets the public know that there is a missing person fitting that unique criteria that they should be watching for, he added. Seniors with dementia or someone with a cognitive impairment, like autism, may not look like they need help.

"They're very difficult to find in an urban situation because they wander through the city, they look just like everybody else. Unless you specifically know they need assistance, you're not going to look for them or recognize them."

That message is often best disseminated to a specific area rather than to the entire province, he said, because unlike in child-abduction scenarios, missing seniors and vulnerable people are less likely to travel great distances. 

He says that's why a Silver Alert is actually quite different from an Amber Alert. 

"They don't tend to go beyond that region … We feel that we can alert the right people at the right place and not expose people to too many notices for missing people and cause kind of what people call 'alert fatigue.'"

A spokesperson for the PC party said the bill is expected to be called for introduction and debate next week.