Wednesday, January 5, 2011

War Story Wednesday - A Cold Winter's Night

One freezing winter's night during a midnight tour in the late 80s, I was checking the churches in my sector, as there had been a spate of break-ins. Near the entrance of a church on Vernon Valley Road, I noticed a figure tugging on a locked door. I was surprised to see it was an elderly woman.

I lowered the passenger side window and summoned her. "Hop in ~ it's five degrees outside!"

She got in, and I asked her what she was doing, and if she had any ID. She was trying to find someplace warm, she said. She opened a small purse, which contained three unusual items: a checkbook register from 1969, a knee-hi stocking, and a spoon, but no ID. I requested her name and date of birth (DOB). I imagined some family worrying about their missing loved one, yet I hadn't heard any local notifications recently. I asked where she lived. She cryptically replied, "Near the water." I assumed that meant Northport. I found her in East Northport, which is actually south of Northport (that's another story). I asked if she knew the name of the street or her house number, but she did not.

I drove to the nearest Dunkin' Donuts (24 hour places were limited at the time), so I could use a pay phone (no cell phones, or computers in the patrol cars). I brought her to the counter, gave the clerk money to buy a warm drink and a snack for the lady while I used the phone. I called the precinct and asked a desk officer to run a missing person's check. She was not an active missing person, but her name appeared in the computer -- with a DOB 20 years older than what she provided. He supplied her address on Vernon Valley Road, not far from the church where I found her. We returned to the car. After mentioning her address, she seemed to recognize it. As I drove along Vernon Valley Road, I asked her if she could point out her house; she could not. I tried looking for house numbers where you'd expect them ~ on mailboxes, curbs, houses or garages ~ and several in a row displayed no house numbers (one of my pet peeves in patrol work).

I had delivered mail in the Northport area one summer while waiting to join the police academy, and I learned that strange house numbering is the norm on Long Island. (House number image: L.A. Times blogs.)

I chose a house that I estimated to be near the woman's address. It was still dark out when I woke an occupant at some ungodly hour.

"Who is it?" the groggy voice answered, without opening the door.

"It's the police. What's the number of your house?"

"Oh, yeah, we don't have our number on our house."

"I know. Sorry to wake you. I'm trying to locate the home of a woman who wandered away." I mentioned her name, but the resident didn't know her. I apologized and tried the next unnumbered home.

It was the wrong house, too. This woman knew her, though. "You know what it is, right?" she asked. I nodded as she said, "Alzheimer's." She explained that when the wandering woman and her husband, now deceased, had moved in 30 years ago, their house was facing a side road that didn't exist yet. That's why I had such difficulty finding the house. The lack of numbers on the surrounding houses didn't help.

She said that her wandering neighbor, who had no family except one relative in Europe, lived alone. A social services worker visited weekly, and the house was boarded up from the inside to prevent her from wandering. Sounded like a fire hazard to me.
She offered to take the woman home. When I said that she had claimed to live near the water, the neighbor said she was referring to Battery Park in New York City ~ where she lived as a young girl. (photo: www.common/

When I retrieved the woman from my patrol car, the wanderer said to her neighbor, "How's Charlie?"

The neighbor gently replied, "Oh, he died ~ twelve years ago."

It was heartbreaking.

According to, experts estimate the people age 65 and older in the U.S. is projected to double by the year 2030. By age 72, 1 in 8 Americans will have Alzheimer's Disease. Project Lifesaver International was established in 1999, to help families find missing loved ones who wander because of Alzheimer's, Downs Syndrome, dementia, and autism. It's headquartered in Chesapeake, VA., and they work with law enforcement agencies in 1000 communities in 46 states, the District of Columbia, and Canada.

A reminder for the new year: if your house number (or the house number of your loved one) isn't prominently displayed, make sure that it is. When emergency responders are trying to locate a sick or injured party, seconds count. It's frustrating when a house is difficult to find because it isn't numbered. At the very least, if you are in a home occupied with several people, and are awaiting an ambulance or cop to respond, have someone be on the lookout for the responders ~ and wave them on.

I'm impressed with the Fire Department of Franklin Township in Erie County, PA. They distribute free, highly reflective numbers for the mailboxes or driveways for residences and businesses. Cool idea!

If you notice your street sign has been stolen or knocked down, contact your local village or town to have it replaced. According to the Cape Cod Times, a missing street sign delayed the rescue response for a woman who was choking, and it resulted in tragic consequences.

One more thing ~ if you have an elderly neighbor who lives alone, if you don't already know him or her, why not introduce yourself sometime? Check out these suggestions.


  1. Great human interest story, one that perhaps you might consider submitting for my book.

  2. Good story. Good advice. Tugged at my heart.


  3. Kath:

    Excelling information for everyone to share!

    A heartbreaking story "How's Charlie?" pulled my heart strings for certain.


  4. What a sad story. In many ways, Alzheimer's seems worse than death to me. I'm so glad my mother was spared it even though she lived to 94.

  5. Kathleen - What a good thing you did that night to work so hard to find out who that woman was and where she lived. In so many cultures, no-one would dream of abandoning an elderly relative, but in our culture, that's not so. Makes me wonder how far we've evolved... And it's just going to become more of a societal issue as the Baby Boomers become elderly...

  6. Dear John,
    It's a vivid memory for me, one I'll never forget. I would enjoy expanding this post into a story. I'm so thrilled you've accepted "The Watcher," but I'd be happy to send you this one, too, for consideration. Thanks for visiting my blog today.

    Hi Madeline,
    Thanks so much for your kind words, I appreciate it. It was an emotional night on so many levels. I'm so glad I found her, I'd hate to think what might have happened if she remained in the cold.

    Hi Charles,
    How painful it must be for those whose loved ones don't recognize them anymore. How blessed your mother was not to suffer from Alzheimer's. I'm sure you miss your mother dearly. It's tough around the holidays when our loved ones aren't around anymore.

    Hi Margot,
    I remember being slightly panicked, wondering where she belonged (and we certainly had not received any training when it came to Alzheimer's patients at that time). I was relieved when the desk officer at least found an address for her. Then the shock of finding out she lived alone in a boarded-up home; so sad. You make an excellent point about the Baby Boomers ~ there's a lot of us!