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Early one April morning, before the sun was up, an 81-year-old woman crept out of her Williamsville home – and wandered away.

Luckily, she was found – by a group of girls out delivering the newspaper – and returned to her family.

“She was badly bruised,” said Lynne M. Dixon, a county legislator whose mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s six years ago. “We believe she fell.”

In a region with an aging population – including many people suffering from Alzheimer’s and other cognitive issues – the possibility of memory-impaired wandering among the elderly is a growing problem.

Just this week, police said, an 81-year-old City of Tonawanda man went missing from his home.

That’s when “Silver Alert” stepped in.

The fledgling program, started in 2011 in Erie County, is designed to locate missing seniors or other vulnerable adults who have wandered – and return them safely home.

Niagara County put a similar program in place in 2010.

New York State has since adopted a “Gold Alert” law, which aims at much the same results.

“This is a public health crisis,” said Edward A. Rath III, who sponsored the “Silver Alert” law in the Erie County Legislature, where it passed unanimously.

Though still in early days, the “Silver Alert” program seems to be achieving results.

According to statistics provided by Rath, in 2012 the program:

– Saw five “Silver Alert” requests in Erie County.

– Activated the program in two of those cases.

– Had successful outcomes in both cases.

“We have an incredible program in Amber Alert” for missing children, said Rath, a Republican from Amherst. “We should have the same type of response, the same immediacy, for our seniors.”

Here’s how it works.

When a senior with memory or cognitive impairment, or other health issues, goes missing, the name of the missing individual is turned over to the Erie County Sheriff’s Office by local police or family members.

Sheriff’s dispatchers go through a checklist and call all the names and organizations on the list.

Local police agencies are notified, as are Alzheimer’s organizations and other relevant groups, and calls are made or releases sent to all local media, said Erie County Sheriff’s Chief of Special Services Scott R. Patronik.

“I don’t think there’s any magic to ‘Silver Alert,’” Patronik said. “It’s just all over.”

The law works the same way whether the missing individual has disappeared on foot or in a car – a scenario that is not uncommon.

Last week, the 81-year-old City of Tonawanda man sparked a “Silver Alert” after he was last seen in his Chevy Trailblazer. He was later found and returned to his family.

“I think this is a positive thing,” Patronik said. “We’ve had it happen in the past, only in the past few years, where people ... wandered from an apartment and died in a ditch.

“Now, we are getting called in.”

The development of “Silver Alert” strikes a special chord for people like Sue Riggi, a Wheatfield resident whose father went missing repeatedly during his long decline with Alzheimer’s.

Several times, Riggi’s father, James, managed to get away from home and drive long distances in his car. Once he was found in Pennsylvania, another time in Rochester, and once in a small town downstate.

“The first time he disappeared, he was actually only gone a few hours,” said Riggi, the owner of Sinful nightclub in downtown Buffalo. “My mother never even told us about it. He drove to Rochester, and he couldn’t think of how to get back.”

Her father’s wanderings eventually grew more alarming, Riggi said.

“My mother called me at 6 a.m. and said, ‘He hasn’t come home,’ ” Riggi said. “He was in Pennsylvania. He was always driving. He wandered into a bank there. He needed money. When he wandered into the bank, they knew he was confused.”

Riggi’s father died in 2005, at age 99.

Now, Riggi – who has since served on the board of the local Alzheimer’s Association – wishes that “Silver Alert” had been in place while her father was dealing with his cognitive problems.

“There’s more fear to it, more than anger or anything,” she said of what it’s like to have a vulnerable parent wander. “The second time, we were lucky somebody found him. But then you worry: Will someone take advantage of him? Will he be all right?”

That’s a feeling that Dixon, the legislator, and her family members know all too well.

During earlier parts of her mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s, now six years long, the family had to cope with at least four incidents when Dixon’s mother wandered from her Amherst home. Her illness progressed, and she is now in a wheelchair and no longer wanders, Dixon said.

“My mom has always liked to walk,” said Dixon, a Hamburg resident. “Physically, she was strong as an ox. When the Alzheimer’s set in, she would go out, and we just wouldn’t know where she was.”

Dixon’s mom was returned home, on different occasions, by the group of newspaper carriers, by neighbors, by Dixon and her siblings, and by the police.

The new law has won applause in local Alzheimer’s and dementia care communities.

Experts in the field of Alzheimer’s care and awareness call the “Silver Alert” program a solid step forward when it comes to providing security and safety to the thousands of Erie County residents dealing with memory impairment.

In November, the Western New York chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association gave Rath – and by extension, the Erie County Legislature – an award for making “extraordinary advances toward improving the quality of life for persons with dementia.”

The new program complements a program called “Safe Return,” which the Alzheimer’s Association has used since the mid-1990s to find and return vulnerable adults, coupled with a program called “MedicAlert,” which puts individual’s ID information on a bracelet or necklace, said Andrew Wilton, director of outreach initiatives at the local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. His role at the Alzheimer’s Association includes overseeing those two programs.

In 2012, six people who were enrolled in the MedicAlert/SafeReturn system went missing and were subsequently found, he said.

There were 21 new enrollees in the system last year, Wilton said, and since it became available, 844 men and women have been enrolled in the MedicAlert/Safe Return system.

“Between the Silver Alert program in Erie County, combined with the MedicAlert and Safe Return, we have a very good system in place for returning people to their homes,” said Wilton.

These wanderers, he said, need everyday citizens to be on the lookout for them.

“They are totally dependent,” Wilton said, “on being found and returned.”

email: cvogel@buffnews.com