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How a tiny bracelet saved the life of a man with dementia

fr lifesaverDuring rehearsal for her church’s band one Monday night, Paula McElroy called home to check on her 82-year-old husband who suffers from dementia. No answer.


She called him again at 9:30 p.m. when the rehearsal concluded. Again, no answer. She felt sick to her stomach.

“It is the worst feeling in the world,” McElroy said.

When she opened the door to her house in Eagle’s Nest, she heard silence. The pit in her stomach sunk deeper. Where were the couple’s two miniature poodles? More importantly, where was her husband Bob? 

“I came home to a quiet house,” McElroy said. “I got a very bad feeling.”

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Thankfully, she had a surefire way to find Bob — a Project Lifesaver bracelet strapped to her husband’s wrist that emits a signal, allowing law enforcement to find him wherever he wanders.

A tracker owned by the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office picks up a signal from as far as a quarter of a mile away. The tracker beeps louder and louder as deputies get closer to the person wearing the bracelet. They start from where the person was last seen and work from there.

That Monday night, McElroy called the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office, and within 30 minutes, they had honed in on Bob’s position and were already pulling him out of a ravine. Bob had walked down an old logging road near the house in search of one of the poodles that had scampered off. He fell down a steep bank, was cut up and broke his nose, his cheekbone and a couple vertebrae.

“He had fallen and was pretty severely injured,” said Haywood County Deputy Mitch Rathbone, who responded to the call.

Given the amount of blood he lost and the chill in the night air, had Bob been out there much longer he may not have survived.

“(The bracelet) literally saved my husband’s life,” McElroy said.

Bob is one of only six people in the county who use Project Lifesaver, the nonprofit that sells the tracking bracelets to those with Alzheimer’s, autism and other related conditions, even though more than 1,000 people in the county are estimated to have those illnesses.

“There are so many people not taking advantage of this opportunity,” Rathbone said.

The bracelets cost as much as $300, but those who can’t afford that could be eligible for reduced pricing.

“The little tiny money you have to put out for it is nothing compared to their life,” McElroy said.

Counties must also purchase the tracking equipment necessary to pick up anyone emitting the bracelet’s signal, but Rathbone said it’s worth it.

“It’s money well spent,” Rathbone said. “We are glad to have it.”

The tracking bracelets are giving not only families but also law enforcement peace of mind. Rather than spending hours searching for a missing person, they can find someone most times within 30 minutes, depending on how far they have wandered.

“There was no way we could have found him in a timely manner if we didn’t have this,” Rathbone said of Bob.

A family member of someone with a Project Lifesaver bracelet, or even anyone with a mentally ill relative, is urged to call the police or sheriff’s office anytime the person can’t be found.

“It’s better to me to know they are safe at home,” Rathbone said.

When her husband went missing a year prior, it took 42 people seven hours to find him. That time, he thankfully had no injuries, but it was a wake-up call. Deputies let them know about Project Lifesaver, and Bob was quickly signed up.

“He has been wearing it ever since,” McElroy said. “It makes him feel secure.”

Those interested in signing up or registering a family member can call Community Connections at the Haywood County Senior Resources Center, which operates the program in the county. Community Connections replaces the battery in the Project Lifesaver bracelet each month to ensure it never dies.

The group has promoted the program many times but with little success. John Chicoine from Community Connections hopes that families realize the peace of mind that comes with the tracking bracelet.

“You don’t need it until it happens to you, and then all of the sudden, you need it,” Chicoine said. “I think the number one reason is for the security of their loved one, and the ability to have that comfort level that if they do wander they can be found quickly.”

Call 828.452.2370 to reach Community Connections.

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