All Loretta Bowling wanted to do was take a short walk to visit a lifelong friend, Mary. Nearly seven hours later, well after dark, Loretta was found dehydrated, muddy, scraped, cut and bruised, and with a broken arm.
What happened? The simplest answer is that Mary lives in Modesto, and Loretta, who suffers dementia, forgot they haven’t been neighbors for many years. She got lost.
One of the sheriffs told me he had stopped four kids in the park to see what they were doing out (after dark) and they all showed him their phones with the picture of Mom on Facebook and told him, “We’re searching for Mrs. Bowling.
If Loretta ever really understood where she was when she stepped out of the Waterford home she shares with her husband, Clifton, and sons, Duane and Mike, it didn’t stick. The afternoon of Oct. 4, she walked north on her street, which dead-ends at an irrigation canal. She turned right and started walking the canal bank – nearly seven miles.
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“I realized I was on territory I knew nothing about,” Loretta said Tuesday, sitting at her kitchen table. She doesn’t recall details of the day. “That’s the way with Alzheimer’s,” she said. “I do remember thinking Mary was my good friend and we all got together at her place and that’s where I intended to go.”
That Loretta is back home, recovering and well enough to talk about her illness and her experience, is testament to the way the community pulled together to look for her, her family says.
Six out of 10 people with dementia will wander, says the Alzheimer’s Association.
Clifton and sons were around the house but not right with Loretta as she watched “Dr. Phil” that day. Duane said he heard the TV go off and came downstairs about 10 minutes later to check on his mom. She was nowhere to be found.
Duane sounded the alarm to his dad and brother. Clifton, recalling that Loretta had been walking in one of the family’s almond or walnut orchards the week before, talking about wanting to visit Mary, started driving toward Modesto, hoping to catch up with her. Duane called 911 and he and Mike went off looking for her on area streets.
At least half a dozen Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department units and a few fire crews responded to the Bowlings’ home on North Eucalyptus Avenue, the family said. A deputy with the Sheriff’s Department’s Waterford Police Services urged posting a photo of Loretta on its Facebook page ASAP.
That pages reaches as many as 5,200 followers more effectively than putting out phone calls or other notices, said Mike Radford, who’s been chief of Waterford Police Services for more than four years. “It was really cool that when we put out the word, everybody responded with interest and concern,” he said. “This is a very tight community, they love their town, take care of each other and are concerned with everyone’s well-being.”
Reflecting on the turnout, the Bowlings said Tuesday that they are tremendously grateful. “People I had never met were coming by on ATVs with large spotlights to search all the orchards,” Duane said. A deputy “told me later that he had never seen Waterford so busy.”
I just feel very blessed to have this wonderful family. They take good care of me.
A helicopter was requested, Duane said, but the crew quickly realized the aircraft would be ineffective: There were far to many people out walking in the orchards to tell Loretta from a searcher.
About 7:30, a lead was provided that helped narrow the search. A neighbor said he’d seen Loretta walking along the canal at Reinway Avenue about 4 p.m. but didn’t think anything of it. “He might not even know she has dementia,” Duane said.
“It’s kind of a hidden disease,” Loretta added.
More than 5 million Americans live with Alzheimer’s, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. By 2050, the number could reach as high as 16 million.
Then, shortly before 10, Waterford police got a call from a farmer who’d found Loretta on his property, out near Hazeldean Road. “He heard a noise outside his home,” Duane said. “It startled him and he started to grab for his gun, but his daughter reminded him there was a lady missing. He peeked outside and there was my mom.”
It was like a party when family and other searchers (Duane’s daughters in Chowchilla brought their families and friends) gathered at WPS upon Loretta’s return. And Clifton recalls that when his wife, standing there with a broken arm and other injuries being tended, was asked how she was doing, she replied, “I feel great.”
Loretta, who ended up spending two nights in a hospital, remarked to people at the scene that night, “I guess it will be a long time before I do that again.”
It’s important to keep them busy, TV doesn’t work very well. It’s not a TV anymore – to them, it’s a window. It can take on very realistic properties. If they’re seeing a SWAT team storming a house, they might think it’s happening right outside their door.
Max Perry, Alzheimer’s Association, on the risk of having dementia sufferers sitting too long in front of a television
Her family, though, is taking steps to ensure the “long time” ends up being “never.”
Through Medic Alert, the Bowlings have ordered a hard-to-remove necklace with a built in GPS tracking system, from Bay Alarm. The service costs “$40 a month and we’re going to have her mow the lawn to make the money,” Duane said, teasing his mom. More seriously, he added, “It wouldn’t have mattered if it was $400 a month. The way I felt when that sun went down that day, I don’t ever want to feel that way again.”
The family also will change behaviors and pay more attentions to signals from Loretta, such as her talking about wanting to visit Mary. “She gets bored sitting here watching TV, so I told her from now on – and I told the boys and the doctor this – if she wants to go someplace, we’ll take her and let her know we want to go, too. That will keep her from wanting to wander off.”
Deke Farrow: 209-578-2327
Tips to prevent wandering
From the Alzheimer’s Association:
▪ Carry out daily activities. Having a routine can provide structure. Learn about creating a daily plan.
▪ Identify the most likely times of day that wandering may occur. Plan activities at that time. Activities and exercise can reduce anxiety, agitation and restlessness.
▪ Avoid busy places that are confusing and can cause disorientation. This could be a shopping malls, grocery stores or other busy venues.
▪ Use devices that signal when a door or window is opened. This can be as simple as a bell placed above a door or as sophisticated as an electronic home alarm.
▪ Never lock a person in at home or leave him or her in a car alone. But place locks out of the line of sight. Install either high or low on exterior doors, and consider placing slide bolts at the top or bottom.
For more, go to www.alz.org/care/alzheimers-dementia-wandering.asp.