The story of Art and Sue Martin matters because increasingly Oregonians will have to pay to care for an aging population where Alzheimer’s and dementia are on a sharp uptick. Right now in Oregon, nearly 60,000 adults suffer from Alzheimer’s. By 2025, that number is set to jump to 84,000 — almost two percent of the population. Yet senior centers, an important provider of services to older adults and a local link to state and federal safety net programs, are frequently unprepared to serve people with Alzheimer’s and the family members who care for them.
On the afternoon of November 23, 2012, Sam Counts left his home on East Ninth Avenue in Spokane Valley to pick up bread from the grocery store. Simple enough. He had just gotten back from Christmas shopping with his wife of 45 years, now also his full-time caretaker. Counts, 71, had been diagnosed with dementia less than a year earlier. Hanging onto normalcy before the disease progressed further, Sam’s daughter Sue Belote would visit him several times a week, and he would still call her on the phone, she says. Sam’s doctor had said it was OK to drive, as long as someone else was in the car. On this Friday, Sam got into his white 2012 Kia SUV alone.
“It’ll only take me a minute. I won’t be gone long,” he told his wife, Donna Counts. Before Sam’s diagnosis, this would have been routine.
After two hours Donna called her daughter, worried. “I don’t know what to do. Dad didn’t come back and he never stays away this long,” she said. Three hours after he left, the family reported Sam Counts missing.
The next morning, Saturday, radio and television outlets reported versions of the same story: a local man missing, trim, six feet tall, last seen in a red-and-black jacket, jeans and white tennis shoes. A description of a car and its license plate number was included.
There was a possible sighting of Sam at a Dollar Store in Argonne Village on Saturday morning. An employee there said a man matching Sam’s description walked in and seemed disoriented. A manager at McDonald’s believes she saw him on Sullivan. Sam’s family thinks it is possible that he got separated from his car.
Over seven frantic days, with the help of the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, friends and family led a search that spanned parts of three states. They enlisted the help of a family friend who worked for the Spokane transit system to flyer local buses, and former colleagues of Counts in the postal service put up missing person photos in post offices. In the meantime, the family faced public criticism. Why was he allowed to get into the car alone? Why didn’t he have a cell phone?
“He’d been to the bread store a million times,” Donna counts told InvestigateWest in a recent interview. She took a deep breath.
“I shouldn’t have let him go.”
Wandering behavior has become increasingly familiar. Yet Washington is not prepared to deal with this emerging public health threat. Few police departments have policies or training to educate officers on Alzheimer’s or dementia. An Amber Alert-like system set up in 2009 to help find wandering people is underused, its coordinator acknowledges, and bills to create a formal Silver Alert system like those in more than 20 other states foundered in both houses of the state Legislature this year. Washington is also one of just six states that haven’t even started work on a statewide Alzheimer’s plan, even as the population at risk of wandering surges.
The current approach to safeguarding wanderers sometimes falls short, with fatal effect.