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Senator Plett Speaks to Senator Wallin's Motion to Enact a Federal Framework for a Silver Alert

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Senator Plett Speaks on a Motion to Encourage the Government to Institute a National Silver Alert Strategy and Network

Hon. Donald Neil Plett: Honourable senators, I rise today to speak in support of Senator Wallin’s motion and am indeed honoured to be able to second this motion.

I became familiar with the Silver Alert system when it was recently debated and passed in Manitoba’s legislature, after two fairly highly reported cases involving seniors with cognitive impairment going missing. One involved 94-year-old Bessie Johnson, who wandered away from an assisted living facility in Riverbend on a cold November night. Her family was absolutely terrified, given the poor weather and the fact that her Winnipeg care home was right next to the river.

Bessie had climbed into a warm, unlocked vehicle for shelter and was driven to the owner’s home in St. Vital, unbeknownst to him. The owners found her in their garage the following morning. Bessie doesn’t remember much about the evening, but, thankfully, after a sleeplessness night for the family, Bessie Johnson was found.

Families like the Johnsons were consulted by the bill’s sponsor, MLA Len Isleifson, when he crafted this legislation. He also worked collaboratively with the Brandon Police Service, the Alzheimer Society of Manitoba and several other stakeholders. The Johnson family and others who have been through similar circumstances eagerly support this approach. Bessie’s son, Victor, said that a faster, more widespread approach is a sensible one as it generates community action more quickly.

Alberta has also passed Silver Alert legislation, and 36 states in the U.S. have embraced the system.

The provincial legislation allows Silver Alerts to be issued by law enforcement agencies as a way to work with media and the public to locate cognitively impaired adults reported missing. It helps authorities to more easily locate these vulnerable adults, often seniors, and ease the minds of their families.

In Manitoba, the system applies to all adults with Alzheimer’s, dementia, autism, Asperger’s and other such disorders. A Silver Alert would include personal information about the missing person, including their name, a physical description, a photograph and information about medical conditions. Vehicle information, the location where the person was last seen and the circumstances of the disappearance would also be released. In the same way that Amber Alerts are used all over North America to locate missing children, the Silver Alert system will allow police, health care providers, the media and families to work co-operatively to find cognitively impaired adults who become lost. Like the Amber Alert system for missing children at risk, a Silver Alert would interrupt television and radio broadcasts with information about the missing person. The alerts can also appear on websites and social media.

We are all familiar with the effectiveness of Amber Alerts when we have seen missing children returned safely to their homes and their families. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 924 children have been rescued using the system in their country.

In Canada, 70 children have been rescued over a nine-year period.

As the population ages, the number of people diagnosed with dementia continues to rise at an alarming rate. In fact, there are more than 700,000 Canadians diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s. That number goes up astronomically when one considers all of the types of cognitive impairment. It is estimated that the diagnosis for dementia will double over the next 15 years. The Alzheimer Society of Ontario has stated that three out of five people with dementia will eventually wander off, which presents police with a unique set of challenges.

According to the Globe and Mail, last year alone, Toronto police received 835  reports of missing people aged 61 and older, the highest number in the past five years.

Searching for people with dementia or other conditions affecting their cognitive abilities is especially challenging. Unlike with a missing child, they often don’t comprehend that they are lost and won’t ask for help or respond to someone calling their name. They also sometimes take shelter in out-of-the-way places, and, in tragic cases, have been found dead only metres from their homes.

As Senator Wallin mentioned when she raised an inquiry on Silver Alerts, rural areas in Canada can be exceptionally dangerous in this regard. As Senator Wallin stated, wandering can be deadly as temperatures hover in the -40s for months on end. She also spoke about a man from her rural community who was lost in plain sight and tragically passed away.

It should be noted, colleagues, that lost adults with cognitive impairment in urban settings are also very difficult to spot because they will likely be wandering through the city looking like everyone else. Passersby would have no idea that they are in need of assistance. Unlike Amber Alerts, Silver Alerts have often been disseminated to a specific area, rather than province-wide, because, unlike child abduction cases, missing seniors and vulnerable adults are less likely to travel very far. This helps to rectify the concern raised by some critics of this initiative that there would be overuse, leading to “alert fatigue,” meaning people would be exposed to many notices and, therefore, be less likely to react or pay attention. Silver Alerts are focused on alerting the right people, at the right place, to avoid this risk.

Colleagues, this is an issue of national importance, and the federal government needs to take leadership. I am thrilled that Manitoba and Alberta have already enacted Silver Alert legislation. However, we have vulnerable populations with cognitive impairment nationwide. The Government of Canada needs to encourage all provinces to act promptly so that we can ensure that we are protecting vulnerable adults all across the country through this tried and true system.

I am proud to second this motion, and I applaud Senator Wallin for bringing it forward. I encourage all honourable senators to keep Canada’s cognitively impaired and aging population and their families in mind and to vote in favour of this important motion so that the Senate can send a strong message to the federal government that Silver Alert systems need to be front and centre at their next meeting with their provincial counterparts.

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