Mary W., a 79 year-old woman with Alzheimer’s, managed to evade her caregiver and wandered away from her home. The caregiver immediately notified Mary’s daughter, Helen.  Mary couldn’t have been gone more than an hour. After they had searched the neighborhood and calling friends, neighbors and family without locating Helen, the caregiver suggested requesting a Silver Alert. Helen knew her mother, who had been a highly regarded college professor and an extremely private person, would be mortified to know that her mental condition had been broadcast in public. Besides, Helen wasn’t familiar with the criteria necessary to generate a Silver Alert. She was torn between worry for Mary and sensitivity to her mother’s desire for privacy.

What are the Criteria to Invoke the State’s Network for a Silver Alert?

In Texas, before a Silver Alert is issued, the following criteria must be verified:

the individual is 65 years of age or older; a diagnosis of impaired mental condition; the disappearance poses a credible threat to the missing senior’s health and safety; the family or legal guardian has provided documentation from a medical or mental health professional of the missing senior’s condition; the request was made within 72 hours of disappearance; and sufficient information to disseminate to the public to assist in locating the missing person; In Texas, electronic highway signage will be employed only if accurate vehicle identification and confirmation that the missing senior was driving at the time of disappearance are provided.

The Texas Department of Public Safety recommends that the family or guardian provide a statement signed by the physician and written on the physician’s letterhead which gives the patient’s name, the impaired mental condition and the date of diagnosis.

What are the Issues of Invasion of Personal Privacy Involved with Silver Alerts?

Clearly, issuing a Silver Alert on her disappearance will invade Mary’s constitutional right to privacy. Under normal circumstances, the physician would be required to share Mary’s medical and mental condition only with those individuals Mary (or her guardian, if she has one) has named as permissible recipients of that information. Silver Alerts represent a huge broadening of that notification to the general public.

To assure that the disclosures allowed with Silver Alerts avoid violating the missing senior’s constitutional right to privacy, the law must balance the government’s interest, the individual’s interest, the risk of erroneously depriving of the privacy and the value of the procedural safeguards. Procedures should guarantee that disclosures are made only when the government’s interest in safeguarding its citizens outweighs the individual’s right to privacy.

Should Helen Request a Silver Alert?

Since Mary is an Alzheimer’s patient, it is likely that she risks harm, even life-threatening danger, in wandering off. Therefore, Helen would certainly be justified in requesting a Silver Alert.  However, a person’s right to privacy might outweigh the risk involved. For instance, if a competent adult with a substance abuse problem leaves a rehabilitation facility against medical advice, it might be improper to activate the Silver Alert system.

 Sandra W. Reed is an attorney with Katten & Benson, an Elder Law firm in Fort Worth. She lives and practices in beautiful Somervell County, near Chalk Mountain.