Illness spurs daughters to push for alert for seniors



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EDITOR’S NOTE The Telegraph has chosen this legislation to highlight a bill’s life through the Legislature, a project that will include a series of stories that follows each step of the legislative process and the people behind it. COMING NEXT: Mary Stipe and Anne Conceison pleaded their case for the first time to members of a key legislative panel. MERRIMACK - A few years ago, Anne Conceison and Mary Stipe became worried about the safety of their mother, Teresa Canty Cahill, who was living in an in-law apartment at Conceison's home in Amherst. Cahill, then 81, was afflicted with Alzheimer's disease that took away her sense of reality, plus severe osteoporosis that saddled her with constant pain and macular degeneration that was slowly robbing her of eyesight. If Cahill somehow got out of their wooded home, she could become lost forever, they feared. "We have to think about securing the exits," Anne's husband, Jim, told the two sisters one morning. As if on cue, Cahill appeared at the door. "My mother was at the door in her pajamas," Anne Conceison said during an interview. "She had gone down the long driveway through the woods to get the mail and had this puzzled look on her face like: 'I think this is where I am supposed to come back in.' "Thank God she didn't take a wrong turn in the woods." Silver Alert Bill (HB 279) Amazingly, Cahill never did get lost. Cahill died in July of pneumonia and inability to breathe at age 84. Her experiences led the sisters to think about families with frail and mentally impaired seniors who are living on their own or not under constant watch. "We realized after mom was gone that we could really do something," Mary Stipe said. "It was too late to help her, but this could protect a lot of people that have loved ones who care deeply about them." Police departments often are called upon to help locate lost elderly citizens. Last Oct. 18, Milford police managed to locate a 75-year-old local man with Alzheimer's disease after he had gotten into his car and gone missing for several hours. National estimates are that 60 percent of those with dementia will wander away at some time in their life. "People who have lost their sense of reality and go missing, it's not even like a child that would have an instinct to take care of him or herself," Mary Stipe said. "They don't have the connections mentally to know they have left home. They can try to find their way back and just get stuck." "These are the people that have taken care of all of us," Conceison said. "Don't we need to find some way to protect them at their time of most need?" Stipe and Conceison thought of a Silver Alert, patterned after the successful Amber Alert used when children have gone missing. The Amber Alert triggers immediate lookout warnings on highway signs and hourly alerts on statewide radio, TV and newspaper Internet sites to blast word of the missing child - a Silver Alert could be as successful in getting public attention. "If you see an older person walking around, you aren't necessarily going to approach them and say, 'Do you know where you are going?' You don't want to offend somebody," Stipe said. Lobbying for their idea Once the two had an idea for a Silver Alert, they knew enough that a state law would be required. Stipe, who lives in Merrimack, knew enough about local politics to turn to Republican state Rep. Peter Batula , a longtime representative and former chairman of the House Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs Committee. He also saw the need. "As the population ages, we have more people who are 85 or 90 years old who are physically able to wander off but not mentally capable and get lost," Batula said. He went to work and found that unbeknownst to Stipe and Conceison, this is a growing cause across the nation. In the past year, the number of states with a Silver or Senior Alert Program has tripled to 12, including Texas, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, West Virginia and Missouri. Another dozen states are considering such legislation. Texas Democratic U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett has offered a federal bill for a nationwide system. "We thought this was our very own idea and here there were people like us in states all over the country coming to grips with it," Mary Stipe said. "This is great because we can learn from all of their experiences and make New Hampshire's program the best in the country." Batula went ahead and submitted a bill, officially know as HB 279 in the Legislature. The bill is expected to be heard before the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee today. Batula went one step further than introducing a senior alert system, he increased the bill, adding something that no other state has done - an alert for missing people of any age who have developmental disabilities. He chose a Colorado law to most parallel what his bill attempts to achieve for New Hampshire. Since the alert would piggyback on the Amber Alert, Batula said the cost for this will not be great. This is a pivotal issue as lawmakers are discouraged from seeking new money as the state faces a $95 million budget deficit, which could quadruple in the next two years. "This isn't one of those bills where people will be calling and getting an alert out for someone missing for an hour," Batula explained. "The local police have to become convinced this missing person is a senior or someone vulnerable with developmental disabilities and then they have to make the case to the State Police before a statewide alert is issued." The legislation has already attracted the names of three committee chairmen including Rep. Cindy Rosenwald, D-Nashua, and Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester. "People should embrace the fact this is their government, if they want to change something or bring a new program to reality, they need to get active and try to make it happen," Conceison added. Alzheimer's effects The last years for Teresa Canty Cahill were difficult, as Alzheimer's slowly took effect. She had been a pioneering nurse anesthetist who worked at a Perth Amboy, N.J., and also at a dialysis program at Muhlenberg Regional Medical Center in Plainfield, N.J. Her late husband, Bill, was a corporate lawyer and they once had a condominium in the plush Harbor Towers in Boston. "Little by little, she started repeating things. You could see she became more uncomfortable," Stipe said. "This was so alarming to her because she was a very involved person who always worked so hard to make everyone else comfortable." To Stipe's sister the most tragic change was making this star in her medical professional a slave to her pills. "Sometimes, she didn't know she was on medication and would ask, 'What are you giving me?" Anne Conceison said. "You felt like a mean person because it took away her control, but it had to be." Conceison also said her mother began to lose touch and earnestly believed that what she had seen on television was happening to her. Cahill became an avid viewer of Fox News' talk show anchor Bill O'Reilly. "She wouldn't change the channel. She thought it was not polite like ignoring someone who was sitting there next to her," Conceison said. "She thought Bill O'Reilly came to see her every night. She said, 'Isn't he so thoughtful?'"

 

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