Cellphones could help police find lost people with dementia — if people use them right

It took rescuers 53 hours last week to track down a missing 75-year-old woman with dementia, authorities in North Carolina said.

If her neighbors still had landlines, they might have found her sooner.

Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood said in a special column Wednesday that police were unable to provide the missing woman’s neighbors with crucial instructions using what he dubbed “a vastly underutilized safety service” known as reverse 911.

Given people with dementia’s propensity for staying close to home after getting lost and the unlikelihood of them calling out to rescuers who walk by, the sheriff said it was vital neighbors checked their own backyards — crawl spaces, gardens, cars and decks — for the missing woman.

But only about a dozen people had registered their cellphones with the program.

“When most people had landline telephones, reverse 911 systems had the ability to penetrate deeply into defined geographical areas,” Blackwood said. “Now, few people have landlines, and people must opt in to register their cellphones. This has greatly diminished our ability to reach large numbers of people quickly.”

Maryanne Rosenman went missing from her Chapel Hill home in the early hours on Aug. 14 wearing just a nightgown and sneakers, the News & Observer reported.

She was pulled from a drainage ditch — alive and with no serious injuries— in a wooded area on Friday around 11:30 a.m., according to the newspaper.

Rosenman was only half a mile from her own home and 400 yards from the back of the nearest house, Blackwood said.

Police and other emergency personnel are able to predict, to some extent, the movements of people with dementia by following a behavior profile, the sheriff said. They are typically found by rescuers in the brush, along a fence line, in an outbuilding or in another low-lying area.

“People with dementia tend to ‘ping pong’ off obstacles, especially when lost,” Blackwood said.

Such a path reportedly means search dogs wouldn’t have just one scent trail to follow.

He said 325 people from 36 agencies were subject to “wooded terrain, dense foliage, extreme humidity and deep ravines” while trying to locate Rosenman, even crawling on their hands and feet in some places.

A rescue crew ultimately found Rosenman in an area that was already searched twice, ABC11 reported.

In addition to providing pertinent instructions during such a search, the sheriff said reverse 911 alerts subscribers to severe weather, environmental hazards and nearby criminal activity.

“Not only would it have been useful to get specific messaging out to the missing person’s neighbors, it allows emergency management personnel to provide critical, time sensitive information in a variety of situations,” Blackwood said. “If your neighborhood is under an evacuation order, for instance, you want to know that information as soon as possible.”

Orange County residents can register for the service online at

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Hayley is a Real Time reporter at The Charlotte Observer covering breaking news and trending stories in the Carolinas. She also created the Observer’s unofficial bird beat (est. 2015) with a summer full of ornithological-related content, including a story about Barred Owls in love.