July 16, 2002
Case of Missing Man Highlights Problem of Memory Loss
Program Can Help Find Those Who Are Mentally Impaired
by Megan Woolhouse, The Louisville Courier-Journal
Shortly after being diagnosed with dementia several years ago, retired bus company foreman Ernest Swaim
boarded a Greyhound and disappeared.
Two days later he reappeared and said he had been in Frankfort.
"He just said, 'Here I am,' " recalled his daughter, Lindy Hackney, among the family members who searched
for him. "We were relieved."
But Swaim, now 79 and suffering from diabetes, disappeared again June 22, and he hasn't come back.
Dressed in white coveralls, he walked away from his son's house near Audubon Park just before lunch. No
one, not even area bus drivers who knew his face well, have seen him.
And "as time goes on, the chances are slimmer and slimmer that he will be found alive," said Detective Bill Keeling, a Louisville police spokesman.
Organizers of a program called Safe Return -- funded by a $900,000 U.S. Department of Justice grant and administered by the Alzheimer's Association -- say Swaim's case illustrates a widespread problem: the need to help families deal with challenges related to dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
Kentucky has one of the lowest participation rates nationally in Safe Return, which alerts law enforcement and other agencies, including bus companies, when a program member is missing.
Swaim, for example, was not registered with the program, though he had a tendency to wander great distances. As a former foreman for the Transportation Authority of River City, he held a lifetime bus pass.
If he had been registered in the program, Safe Return administrators could have alerted not only police but also bus company officials and shelters across Kentucky and in other states. Participants also receive bracelets that identify them as "memory-impaired" and give the national Safe Return hotline number.
About 68,000 people in Kentucky suffer from dementia, including Alzheimer's disease, but only 1,000 are registered in the program, according to the Louisville Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association.
Brian Hance, associate director of Safe Return at the Alzheimer's Association's main office in Chicago, said Kentucky needs a public-awareness campaign to boost participation here.
According to the Alzheimer's Association Web site, since 1993, more than 88,000 people joined the program, which has helped locate and return 7,000 individuals.
Officials at the Louisville chapter of the Alzheimer's Association said they have not tracked the number of people who have been found through the local Safe Return program.
Irene Walter of St. Matthews said she didn't consider placing her husband in the program until the third time he got lost. Today she credits Safe Return with saving his life.
Walter said her husband had been shopping with his daughters during a trip to Baltimore when he wandered off. Dementia had left the once-successful manufacturing representaive confused and unable to talk and write.
A stranger found him ambling along a road, tired and dehydrated, about five miles from where he disappeared. She took him to police, who were able to contact Safe Return because he wore an identification bracelet.
"That was when I became absolutely passionate about individuals understanding the value of Safe Return," she said. Without it "he would have been left with everyone trying to figure out who he is and where he belongs."
Walter said she initially ignored the program because she couldn't admit that her once-vibrant husband had become sick.
"I said, 'I don't want my husband wearing an I.D. bracelet,' " she said.
Hance said many families have difficulty accepting encroaching dementia and are afraid to talk about it with anyone outside their family.
"There's a lot of caregiver denial," Hance said. "A lot of people do not want to register their loved ones and are in denial that they will ever wander."
Swaim's familty thought they had taken the proper precautions to help him in case he became lost. They placed family phone numbers and extra identification in his wallet because he had difficulty speaking and a tendency to wander and fall down.
Hackney said he also had his Social Security card and an identification card from Munfordville, Ky., where he had been living before his visit here.
But dementia causes a loss of intellectual functions, including thinking, remembering and reasoning. Those who have it often lose their wallet or handbag.
"They get all turned around," said Janice Knebl, an osteopathic doctor specializing in geriatrics at the University of North Texas Health Science Center. "We've had deaths in Texas where they're found on the side of the road, not far from where they lived. It's very, very scary."
Family members fear Swaim may have collapsed somewhere, possibly because of heat exhaustion or dehydration, but they hold out hope that he took a bus somewhere.
Although his driver's license was revoked more than a decade ago, with his lifetime TARC pass he frequently rode buses around Louisville.
Swaim's family says his dementia stems from an accident several years ago, when he was hit by a car while crossing Eastern Parkway. He suffered a head injury and his family placed him in a nursing home.
But not long after, he was found standing at the bus stop outside the nursing home in his pajamas, said his daughter-in-law, Hester Swaim.
"He was going home," she said. "Catching the bus."
Bonnie Swaim, Ernest's wife of 55 years, said he lost his love of big band music and old movies as his condition worsened. He became more frustrated because he was unable to communicate what he wanted, she said.
"I still have hope," she said. "And I appreciate that people keep looking."
A year ago, Hackney helped her parents move to Munfordville, where she also lives. She said her father continued his walks in the small town, sometimes visiting the town post office six times a day.
But she said he longed to be back in Louisville and Oldham County, where he had lived since he was 16. A paratrooper in World War II, he also began talking about moving to a veteran's home in Louisville, though he couldn't specifically identify the place.
Hackney said she would take him on drives through the city to find the place he was seeking, because looking for it seemed to calm him. It didn't matter whether it existed or not, she said.