By Mona Dougani

Deputy Daniel Roberson of the Orange County Sheriff’s Office still recalls a case a couple of years ago when a 75-year-old woman with dementia wandered from her home. 

The incident launched a multi-day search. Hundreds of people participated, combing the woods and streets near her home. Severe storms interrupted the search briefly. 

Two days passed before investigators from the sheriff’s office and other rescue crews found the woman in a drainage ditch, thankfully alive. 

In July, the same sheriff’s office was awarded an $8,050 grant for a program to assist people with cognitive impairments such as dementia and their families. Roberson and others jumped at the opportunity to purchase more equipment allowing them to serve more people.

Orange County is home to roughly 30,000 seniors, 10 percent of whom suffer from cognitive impairments, according to Kim Lamon-Loperfido, aging transitions administrator for the county’s Department of Aging. 

In North Carolina the number of people living with Alzheimer’s in 2021 number is around 180,000 people, according to Eastern North Carolina Alzheimer’s Association. 

Nearly 6.2 million Americans 65 years or older live with the condition in according to recent data from the Alzheimer’s Association.

More trackers

Project Lifetrack is a program that uses ankle and wrist monitors that issue a radio frequency that helps to locate individuals who go missing. The project also  provides a tracker which admits a radio frequency specific to that one tracker. 

The Orange County Sheriff’s Office estimates that they get a call a week “about an individual wandering off.” Project Lifetrack had been monitoring 46 people before the grant came in. Now they can bring in 20 more people with additional equipment. 

“We are proud to offer [a program] that helps caretakers, family members and gives them an extra peace of mind,” Roberson said. “Nothing’s 100 percent, but at least this program and having that tracker on their loved one, in case they do wander off, helps us locate them for one, but also gives the caretakers a little bit more peace of mind, in case they get caught up in day to day activity.”

To qualify for the free service, the sheriff’s office conducts interviews and assesses the diagnosis and sometimes meets with the family at their own homes. 

Consent is typically given by the caregiver in most cases, and the transmitter bracelet is then attached to either the individual’s arm, ankle, or wrist. Twice a month somebody from the department helps change the battery. 

Long lasting support

For Sheila Evans, a Carrboro resident whose husband was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia in 2008, the program brought her great rewards. 

Before they joined the program, Evans’ husband had wandered from home a couple times, troubling her so much she called the police and had Silver Alerts put out on both occasions. 

“The policeman found him both times, very, very quickly,” Evans said. “He wasn’t gone for hours and hours or anything like that, but it’s scary. It was scary. It was really scary. So, I love that program. I just wish I had known about it even earlier.”

In addition to gaining peace of mind by enrolling in the Lifetrack program, Evans also received emotional support through a caregiver support group held at the Seymour Center, the senior center of Orange County facility located in Chapel Hill. 

Before she became a caretaker for her husband, Evans cared for many others as a home health nurse. That gave her a sense of some of the challenges she would encounter with her husband. But she wasn’t prepared for the weight she would feel when everything fell on her shoulders.  She had to do all the cooking, shopping, bill paying, planning and everything in between.

“Caretaking is isolating,” Evans said. “It’s hard. You have to learn some new roles … I had some wonderful things happen because of it, but it’s not an easy road.”

Evans said she accepted and asked for help from others and was thankful she did.  What she wasn’t expecting was how close she would become to people she met in the support group at the Seymour Center. 

“I don’t consider myself a group kind of person, but I don’t know if I could have gotten through it without the support group, without hospice, without the adult daycare, and without someone just giving me some free time to exercise, to walk,” Evans said. “What was so wonderful about the care group is they were really the only people that truly understood what you were going through.” 

“The caretakers in the caretaking groups, they got it, because they were going through it too,” Evans added. “We did a lot of crying together, but also a lot of laughing together about silly things that happened when we were caretaking. We still laugh about some of the things because we got to know each other so well.” 

The group of seven women still keep in touch today. Evans even made a pamphlet about their experiences together. 

A look into the future

Another place in the Triangle that offers support services for caregivers is the Duke Dementia Family Support program.

Bobbi Matchar, the program director, is touched by the support groups, especially one group that continued to meet even after some members finished their caretaking duties. 

“Knowing that you’re not alone is enormously helpful for families,” Matchar said. “I know families who have ended up connecting with each other outside of our programs. You know, they’ve gone to a support group together for weeks or months or even years, and have formed relationships with each other, and can support each other outside of our formal programs.”

The group that has lasted seven years started with 13 members. Though nine are widowed, the group has continued because they want to support the remaining four still in the caregiving role. 

Seven women whose husbands have dementia sit at a table talking and eating.
Sheila Evans (Left) and the women who were in a support group with her eating and chatting. Photo provided by Sheila Evans.

Support groups can help a lot, Matchar said, but having the ability to quickly locate people who might have wandered from home is also crucial. Durham County has a tracking program of its own. 

“I think that what Orange County is doing, and currently what Durham County is doing, and what’s happening in in counties and states across the country, is that there are many efforts to raise awareness about dementia, so that it’s not a stigma, so that people in the community can know how to be helpful,” said Matchar. 

Evans, who has been trying to raise awareness about the challenge of caring for someone with dementia for years, thinks tracking programs and other services that Orange County provides are crucial for the future. 

“We have this incredible problem in our lives now because we have so many people my age and older who either have to be cared for, or they’re going to become caretakers, and there’s not enough help out there,” Evans said. 

“It’s a huge problem. Who is going to take care of all of us? It’s really, really scary. When we live in a county such as Orange County, that has all these wonderful resources —  I feel so very lucky, and we can help other people learn what’s got to be put in place to help all these aging people.”

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Mona Dougani is a recent graduate from Queens University of Charlotte, where she majored in communications and minored in journalism. She was an Emma Bowen Fellow with NC Health News in the summer of 2021...