Donna Kilponen was in a deep sleep in the early hours of a frostbitten morning in February 2020.
Richard, her husband, was wide awake. The pajama-clad Alzheimer’s disease patient opened the door of their Fairfield Glade home and, with only socks between him and the frozen ground, began walking.
Police discovered him confused and badly injured about 2 miles away. Nearby was an abandoned car, and they at first believed he was the driver and had been in a crash. Neither was the case.
“They said if he would have been out another hour, he probably would have frozen to death,” Donna remembered. “It was scary.”
It’s believed Richard slipped away around 2 a.m. Police contacted her about two hours later.
“I was sound asleep when they called,” Donna said. “I didn’t believe he left.”
She’s since armed the home with alarms and tries to remain vigilant. And though Richard’s wandering seems to have abated, there were times when she questioned whether she should call authorities if he was late from one of the walks he loved.
Richard Kilponen is among 120,000 Tennesseans living with Alzheimer’s disease, according to Alzheimer’s Tennessee. He is also among the six of 10 the agency says will wander at some point during their illness.
Alzheimer’s Tennessee is lobbying the Tennessee General Assembly for the passage of Silver Alert legislation. Silver Alert is a system designed to model the Amber Alert, but specifically for adults with dementia, disabilities or impairments.
“Creating a uniform protocol across the state will significantly strengthen the Silver Alert system and provide clear instructions for local, inter-agency and media coordination on how to respond to calls of vulnerable, missing adults who may be disoriented and incapable of finding their own way home,” said Lynn Drew, Cumberland Office regional director for Alzheimer’s Tennessee, in a press release.
If passed, Silver Alert would task the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to oversee, organize and establish statewide protocol, as well as providing training and education of those protocols to local law enforcement agencies.
Silver Alert protocol would require law enforcement agencies to begin investigating immediately upon receiving appropriate notice and documentation about a missing adult with dementia, disabilities or impairments, as well as notifying the TBI within four hours.
It supersedes the Care Alert system legislators passed in 2009. Under Care Alert, police departments and sheriff’s offices are “encouraged” to establish their own protocols of managing such calls and begin immediate investigations. It also “encourages” the TBI to oversee the program.
“Silver Alert needs to be approved for caregiver support and concern for dementia citizens in the state of Tennessee as the search can be over state lines,” said Margaret Brant, facilitator for the Crossville Memory Loss Group.
She cared for her husband, Patrick, in his battle with dementia for seven years.
Though he showed no signs of wandering, Brant provided Patrick’s information to Fairfield Glade Police Department when they began a Silver Alert program with Fairfield Glade Resident Services.
“I made sure Patrick had his picture taken, and pertinent details were on the form and available at the Fairfield Glade Police Department in case he did wander,” she said.
“This is valuable for a quick response in the search.”
Richard Kilponen’s cold Plateau walk last winter resulted in a badly cut head and two broken bones in his neck, but it could have been much worse.
“We never expected him to be a wanderer. It just happens, and they don’t know what they’re doing,” wife Donna said. “As time goes on, they don’t hardly know anything.
“If they have that Silver Alert … that would be a good thing because you’re concerned and you want to call, but I’m always hesitant, though, to do it, you know?”