After dinner Sept. 18, Shirley Pharr stepped outside her home in northwest Charlotte and told the neighbors she was going to walk to a nearby salon to get her nails done.
The 77-year-old, whod been diagnosed with dementia months earlier, usually waited for her son to get home, but she walked on ahead without him. She had her nails painted purple.
Afterward, she walked out of the salon and disappeared.
Hours later, as police and family hunted for her, Pharr was struck by two tractor-trailers shortly after midnight as she walked in the center southbound lane of Interstate 85, about 3 1/2 miles from her home.
She was one of two Charlotte-area elderly people with dementia who were reported missing in recent weeks, only to be found dead. Experts say the problem of wandering away from home is common 60 percent of people with dementia wander, some repeatedly and the number of people suffering from dementia is likely to increase.
Nationwide, 5.4 million people have Alzheimers disease, the most common form of dementia, according to the Alzheimers Association. Margaret Moody, vice president of communications for the organizations Western North Carolina chapter, said that number is expected to increase with the aging of the baby boomer generation.
Numbers are growing
Estimates suggest that as many as 10 million people could develop Alzheimers as that age group grays, Moody said.
That means a growing number of families will have to tackle the difficult task of balancing their loved ones independence with their safety. Some are reaching out to law enforcement agencies that offer tracking devices for people with dementia. Experts say the devices are helpful but not foolproof.
Shirley Pharrs son, Darryl Pharr, said that just before she died, hed begun considering having his mother wear a monitor. But she hadnt wandered from home before, he said, and she was continuing with her day-to-day activities as she underwent testing to identify the level of her dementia.
On the day she wandered off, she also had a doctors appointment. That evening, Darryl Pharr went to her home after he got off work and found her gone.
Just a split second, a person could be gone, he said.
Search for the missing
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Detective D. Ring of the Missing Persons Unit said investigators see cases of missing people with dementia three or four times a month.
When were told someone has a head injury, dementia or Alzheimers, it changes things, she said. We consider them at risk.
When a person with dementia wanders away, officers first create a missing person report and enter the person into a national database.
Often, police ask the N.C. Center for Missing Persons to issue a Silver Alert, a statewide bulletin for missing people with dementia or other cognitive impairments.
In most cases, people whove wandered are found safe. In 2011, Silver Alerts were issued for 233 people statewide. Four were found dead.
As they search for the missing person, police canvass the neighborhood, talking to neighbors to see whether they saw the person walking away, Ring said. Police sometimes bring in search dogs.
Ring said they try to understand the missing persons habits and routines that might give clues about where theyve gone. Sometimes, police check their former homes to see if theyve gone there.
When you start getting Alzheimers, the most recent memories go first, Ring said. They cant remember where they live, but they can remember their house where they lived 25 years ago.
Last week, a Silver Alert was issued for an 87-year-old Charlotte man who went missing from his home. Police said he was found driving the same night on Brookshire Boulevard, apparently lost.
Moody said its common for people with dementia to become disoriented to the point where they dont recognize their environment. They may head out for a drive and then get lost, or go for a walk and cant find their way home. Some say they want to go home while theyre standing in the house theyve lived in for years.
Theyre thinking about home as a place of comfort, not the physical building per se, Moody said. When they have that instinct, theyre going to head for the door, whether they know where theyre going or dressed for the weather.
Johnny Jack Mooney of Midland traveled the world playing baseball as he served in the U.S. Air Force in Europe. After he settled down, he had three children and took up coaching. His son called coaching his fathers greatest legacy.
And when Mooney, 81, disappeared last week and authorities issued a Silver Alert, men who played on his Little League team as children helped in the search.
That search ended the next day when Mooneys body was discovered in a creek about 60 yards from his home.
Jack Mooney, his son, said his family believes Mooney was on his normal morning stroll when he fell into a creek. As he tried to get out, he apparently fell and hit his head on a rock.
Jack Mooney said the family doesnt believe his father was lost when he slipped, but he said his father had become lost around town on several previous occasions.
Johnny Mooney was diagnosed with Alzheimers about seven years ago and eventually lost his drivers license, his son said. He hated not being able to go places, so he bought a bicycle. But sometimes on his rides, hed get turned around.
People watched out for him, Jack Mooney said. Wed get a call at 8 or 9 p.m. saying, Your dads here. My brother would go pick him up.
We probably confiscated five or six bicycles. Hed walk to Walmart and buy another.
Johnny Mooney lived on his own, but his family had caregivers visit during the week, and relatives took turns staying with him on weekends.
The last thing he wanted to be was in a home, Jack Mooney said. I made a commitment with my brother to do everything we could to keep him at home. I dont regret it because it was right for him.
He said that had he known tracking devices for the elderly were available, he would have considered the idea, although it probably wouldnt have prevented his fathers death.
Keeping loved ones safe
Moody, of the Alzheimers Association, said each situation is different. She emphasized the importance of establishing a plan to keep loved ones safe.
Several companies offer tracking devices ones that can be worn on the wrist, ankle or in shoes so that the person can be located if they go missing.
Fifty agencies across North Carolina participate in Project Lifesaver, a program that trains agencies across the country to track wandering people wearing a small transmitter. Local participants include sheriffs offices in Gaston, Iredell, Lincoln, Catawba, Burke, Cleveland, Stanly, Alexander and Rutherford counties, as well as Caldwell County Emergency Services.
The Davidson Police Department is the only participating agency in Mecklenburg County. In Charlotte, the police department works with the local Alzheimers Association, which promotes a similar tracking program.
When the Lincoln County Sheriffs Office launched its program earlier this year, authorities said it would cost participants a $20 monthly maintenance fee.
Its great, but not a necessity to keep a loved one safe, Moody said of the transmitters.
Some wont find the monitors affordable. Others might have difficultly convincing their relatives to wear the devices.
Caregivers may not be able to stop wandering, Moody said. But they can put alarms on doors that will beep when someone walks out of the house. She also suggested having someone with dementia wear jewelry that shows their medical and contact information.
Police said caregivers of people with dementia should have identifying information, including a recent photo, easily available in case they go missing.
Moody said many families dont realize wandering is a concern until it happens.
The key is to get these things in place ahead of time. Staff researcher Maria David contributed.