Program provides for safe return
By Shayna Coleon
Advertiser Staff Writer
Ellen Shimabukuro will never forget the first time she lost her 89-year-old mother at Ala Moana Shopping Center last year.
The 54-year-old 'Aiea woman had left her mother, Helen Imamura, who had recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, alone for about five minutes. When Shimabukuro came back, Imamura had disappeared.
"I turned around and it was like, 'Oh-oh,' " Shimabukuro said. "I panicked."
While security guards scoured the mall and found Imamura 20 minutes later, Shimabukuro knew it was an experience she never wanted to go through again, so she registered her mother in the Alzheimer's Association's Safe Return Program, which uses personalized identification bracelets and pendants that provide a 24-hour toll-free number for a national computerized database containing information on individual Alzheimer's patients and others suffering from dementia-related conditions if they get lost.
As Hawai'i senior-care providers and health-care advocates prepare for this weekend's low-cost Safe Return registration campaign, their warning to families grows insistent: Don't wait until it's too late.
"You shouldn't wait until your loved one gets lost," said Janet Bender, executive director of the Aloha Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association. "In the end, your family will be frantic. We sit with these families and it brings immense trauma to them. It's overwhelming."
While registration numbers have steadily increased, only 977 of the 20,000 Alzheimer's patients in Hawai'i are registered, Bender said.
The national Alzheimer's Association reports that six out of 10 people with dementia will wander off or become lost. For most, it will be a repeated occurrence.
Dr. Patricia Lanoie Blanchette, a professor and chair of the Department of Geriatric Medicine at the University of Hawai'i's John A. Burns School of Medicine, said as soon as families see Alzheimer's or dementia symptoms short-term memory loss and problems with orientation in a family member they should sign that person up for Safe Return.
"You can only deal with what is recognized as a problem," Blanchette said. "Once you acknowledge that (a family member) has this problem, you need to do something about it. It's hard for a family to take this step."
This year, 28 dementia patients in the state who were registered in the Safe Return program were reported missing and all were returned to their families, Bender said.
Bender said people who are hesitant to sign up a family member should be reminded of 80-year-old Masayuki Kubo, who had Alzheimer's disease and a history of wandering. Last June, Kubo walked away from his condo on Kapi'olani Boulevard, and has not been seen since. He was never registered for Safe Return, Bender said.
Shimabukuro said signing her mother up for the Safe Return program has already paid off.
Imamura wandered away from her Waipahu care home in May and was missing for two hours, but thanks to her Safe Return identification bracelet, the person who found her was able to contact the family, Shimabukuro said.
"It works," Shimabukuro said. "So just register, because you never know. You could turn around for a split second and that person you love might walk away."
Reach Shayna Coleon at email@example.com or 525-8004.