Julie Kay Webster was found dead in Wyoming, August 2, 2006, less than a mile from her car. Julie, a 58-year-old woman with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, lived in Deephaven, Minnesota and had set out to pick up her daughter at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. She never arrived at the airport. Julie drove west, perhaps thinking she was on her way to visit her friend in California.
We, of course, don’t know what was on Julie’s mind. But she must have felt fear after her car got hung up on in the rugged Wyoming terrain. She still had gas, but her car wouldn’t move. Reports say she had gotten out of her car, which was stuck in sage brush, walked for awhile, then apparently stumbled and/or fell into a ravine. There was no sign of foul play.
Julie’s death is shocking to many of us, not only because it is such a lonely way to die, but because of her age. We, in the northern tier of the country, hear each winter of some elderly person who wandered out into the cold night and froze to death. In hot areas, we hear of elders who wander from home and die of heat stroke. But we generally think in terms of elders, when we think of wandering - and Alzheimer’s.
Julie’s death reminds us that this ugly disease can strike early. At some stage, most Alzheimer’s victims develop the urge to wander. This can happen suddenly, as in Julie’s case. Add the web of confusion that paralyzes the decision making ability of an Alzheimer’s stricken mind, and the wandering can end in tragedy. Julie’s death is a sad way to call attention to the risk of wandering. There is no way to tell when an Alzheimer’s patient will wander, and no one human can keep watch around the clock.
It seems appropriate, at this time, to remind readers of the Alzheimer’s Association’s Safe Return Program, which, since 1993, has assisted in recovering 8,000 lost Americans. For a $40 registration fee, subscribers receive a bracelet or necklace engraved with the national information hot line, which is staffed 24 hours a day with people who help reunite a lost elder with a caregiver. Would Safe Return have helped Julie? Would one of the clerks where she paid for gas have noticed and called the hot line? We don’t know. But Safe Return is one way of keeping an eye on someone with Alzheimer’s. It’s one more tool for the caregiver’s kit.
God bless Julie’s family and all of those who have lived through a similar trauma. They did all they could to keep their loved one safe. May Julie Kay Webster’s untimely death help raise awareness of early-onset Alzheimer’s, and serve to stimulate even more aggressive research to fight this devastating disease.
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. She is a newspaper columnist and the author of Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories. Bradley Bursack is also a contributor to several books on caregiving and dementia, and is passionate about preserving the dignity of elders. Her website is www.mindingourelders.com. Follow Carol on Twitter @mindingourelder and on Facebook at Minding Our Elders.