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New Alert System Aims to Protect Vulnerable Adults in Tennessee

Dementia Caregiver iStock_000021210691_Double annedde

John Preston went out to run errands on what should have been an ordinary Tuesday in July. A week later, a passerby on an ATV spotted the 79-year-old Knoxville-area man’s body after a small army of volunteers and local law enforcement failed to find him.

Preston’s widow says she hopes a new Tennessee law will spare other families the heartbreak she suffered when her husband of 57 years went missing, in 2018. 

The measure, which took effect in July, creates a statewide alert system for when vulnerable adults go missing.   

“We might have found him alive,” says Elizabeth Preston, an 81-year-old retired preschool teacher, who lives in Knox County’s Cedar Bluff neighborhood. 

The Silver Alert program requires the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) to send a notice to media outlets across the state when at-risk adults, such as those with dementia, are missing. Previously, this was left to the discretion of local law enforcement, and nothing required that an alert be statewide. 

“There really wasn’t an official Silver Alert in Tennessee,” says state Sen. Becky Duncan Massey (R-Knoxville), who was the bill’s primary sponsor. 

It was more like a hodgepodge of an alert system that was handled differently from one county to the next, she notes. 

The TBI will now issue a Silver Alert if someone 60 or older is missing and believed to be in danger “because of age, health, mental health conditions or physical disability.” The law also applies to people of any age with dementia and those 18 and older with an intellectual, developmental or physical disability.

The new system means that if a missing person lives on the edge of one county, police all around the region get notified, not just those in the home county, says state Rep. Jeremy Faison (R-Newport), who sponsored the measure in the House. 

Some with dementia wander

Both lawmakers and John Preston’s widow say the system means more people across the state will be looking for those who are at risk. 

“He had two things working against him: diabetes and his heart,” Elizabeth Preston says of her husband. 

It’s believed that John Preston’s blood sugar spiked and he became confused. His SUV later got stuck in a field, and he had a heart attack some time after he got out of the vehicle. 

AARP, working with Alzheimer’s Tennessee, pushed for passage of the Silver Alert law, hoping to prevent similar tragedies.

Six out of every 10 people with Alzheimer’s disease will wander at some point, says Janice Wade-Whitehead, president and CEO of Alzheimer’s Tennessee.

“Families are frantic to get their loved one back home,” she says. “We know that the longer the person is missing, the more likely that either harm or death will be the outcome.”

Sandy Hayes knows firsthand the panic that comes when a loved one goes missing. The 67-year-old Parsons woman and her brother are caregivers for her brother’s wife, who has Alzheimer’s. The sister-in-law got out of her house twice for brief but harrowing episodes. 

“It was very alarming,” says Hayes, who is also an advocate for Alzheimer’s Tennessee. “As they progress with this disease, they have no way of telling anybody where they live.”

Sheila Burke is a writer living in Nashville.

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