By: Gloria Youngblood
How many times have you passed a flyer, not really noticing it? Or perhaps seeing a picture of a lost cat or dog, taking a quick glimpse? Or, there is a picture of a missing person and you think, “How sad I hope they find him or her?” Perhaps you don’t believe you could be the one to help find a missing person. When someone in your family has Alzheimer’s and goes missing, you hope that everyone is keeping their eye out for him.
The morning started normally. I let my dad know my plan to take my daughter to preschool. Security cameras installed on the perimeter of the house would let me know on my watch if my dad walked out. He left two minutes before I did, out the side door, which wasn’t unusual. My dad has coffee on the back deck and perhaps a smoke. I went to drop off my daughter at the preschool, spoke with the teacher briefly on the playground then went to the grocery store.
After about an hour or so, I returned home and checked in on my dad. I checked throughout the house and outside. He wasn’t home. I noticed he didn’t take his cell phone. I got into my car to search the neighborhood, stopping at two convenience stores where he may have gone to buy cigarettes. There were no sightings of my dad. I called the police to make them aware that he had been gone for several hours and to let them know his mental status. He is in his early seventies and in relatively good physical health.
I went to bed fully prepared to leave quickly to go get my dad if I got a call. I placed my dad’s medications on his nightstand still thinking he was going to be back soon. When morning came and no word, I called my brother to let him know. My brother was furious that I hadn’t notified him sooner, but really, I was under the belief it wasn’t going to be long before my dad returned.
My husband and I put up flyers that morning and I suggested to him we should send out a notice to our neighborhood group on Nextdoor. He was hesitant at first, saying that people will just say to call the police and that he hadn’t seen any post like that before unless it was a missing animal. But we were desperate and our assigned detective from the police department didn’t have any leads. Once the posting went up on Nextdoor, it expanded to outlying neighborhoods.
By the first weekend, we had set up a command station in a church parking lot where people drove by and picked up flyers. My husband was in constant communication via texts and emails so we could try to plot where people had been. There was a possible sighting by the Washington Park Arboretum, so people went there. We had people on their walks literally bush whacking, because at this point, I didn’t know what to think.
Even though my dad is retired military and very resourceful, I had an image of him abandoned and possibly curled up somewhere. Many members of the community invested not just their time but were also emotionally invested in the search as well. Because of a person on Nextdoor who had contacts with a TV news anchor, a news crew came out to interview me and shoot video footage of me posting a flyer five days after my dad went missing. The more exposure we could get the better.
On a personal note, I had two different types of cancers in the last three years, but never joined a support group. However, when my dad came to live with us in November 2019, he was in the early to middle stages of Alzheimer’s. I immediately joined the Alzheimer’s support group in the Maple Leaf area.
I am so thankful for the support group facilitator who was checking in with me daily. She helped keep me sane with her thoroughness, ensuring logistics and providing calming support. The other members of my support group kept us in their prayers if they couldn’t physically search for him. And one exceptional person, Katherine — who I joke has the ability to clone herself — tirelessly searched not only wooded and park areas, but countless homeless encampments and free meal sites throughout Seattle.
There were seven potential sightings reported to us before Sunday afternoon, the night before my dad returned home.
A young man was on a first date in Ballard, a neighborhood far away from our house. He met my dad, talked to him for quite some time and was struck by the conversation. But it quickly passed and he didn’t think much beyond it.
The next day the young man saw one of our flyers in Ravenna. He immediately called the non-emergency police number and was only able to leave a message. Then he texted my husband who asked him to call 911 and give them a full report. Because my dad had been missing for so long it was considered an emergency.
After the report was given to the police, my husband asked the young man to call me on my cell phone. When he called me, the young man’s description of his conversation with my dad made me feel, for the first time, that it was a truly plausible sighting. He brought me to tears with some of the details. Of course, by that evening, I again started to have doubts if this was really my dad or not. After all, the young man described different clothing from what my dad wore when he left.
The rest of the day and into the next, we continued to look and posted as many posters as we could in Ballard and the surrounding neighborhoods. We shared the sighting via email, the webpage and the Nextdoor website to have people focus on Ballard. Around 9:00 p.m., we got a call from the police. A different individual called in after seeing the poster and knew exactly where he was. My dad was at the same homeless camp as the caller. Those next 15 minutes were the longest. We were excited, yet because of other false sightings, we did not want to celebrate until we saw him and could see what condition he was in.
There is not a checklist or clearly defined protocol to follow when a person goes missing. The attorney general’s office has a process, but what we found is that there are many gaps in the system. If it was not for the help of our community, from people we did not know, to rally and come together to help in the search, I don’t think we would have found him.
Dad got out of the police car, smiling. He thought he had only been gone for seven days. I pointed to the flyer I had taped to the back windshield of my car and told him it had been 13 days.
Dad said he saw his face on the flyer and wanted to keep one as a souvenir. “It tickled me pink that you guys would make a poster with my face on it.” He told us he was “on vacation and doing undercover work.”
The first person my dad asked for when he arrived home was my daughter. He asked how his granddaughter was doing. We wanted to go directly to the emergency department, but my dad insisted on taking a shower first. This was the first time he asked for a shower since the 10 months he has been with us. After a quick shower, my husband took him to the VA emergency department, where had a rapid COVID test, a chest x-ray and some blood drawn. All tests showed no infection of any kind and labs showed he was not dehydrated.
Dad told my husband he rode a bus and was surprised that it was free. He could not tell us where he got on or off the bus. He ended up spending most of his time (we believe) at a homeless shelter camp just off a main fairway behind an auto parts store. He was kept alive for nearly two weeks because of good Samaritans and people living in the homeless encampment.
Dad did not seem to have any desire to reach out to get any help to come home. He could easily still be out there. He now has a watch that is a cellular phone with GPS. He likes it, finds it very comfortable and it’s waterproof.
My family has so much to be thankful for, but this Thanksgiving we are especially grateful my dad is safe and back home with us. We later returned to the homeless encampment with some items such as bottled water, socks and baby wipes to distribute as a thank you. During this horrendous time, we could truly feel the community that encompassed all types of people, their support and the desire for my dad to be found. For that, we are truly and will always be so grateful!
Six in 10 people living with dementia will wander at least once, a risk that weighs heavily on caregivers and family. Learn more about wandering and our nationwide emergency response service, which offers 24/7 Wandering Support.
November is National Family Caregivers Month. No one should face Alzheimer’s or other dementia alone. We are available around the clock, 365 days a year via our free, 24/7 Helpline. Call us today at 800.272.3900 or learn more about local resources at alzwa.org/care.