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Walter Schmidt was the Alzheimer's victim who wandered away from a health-care facility and whose body was discovered three days later in Como Park Lake. Mr. Schmidt's end was tragic, but the story is not unusual.

Mrs. Smith inched down the center line of a heavily trafficked street with her walker. Her dementia didn't allow her to recognize the danger. A retired psychiatric nurse was jogging in the area and safely returned Mrs. Smith to a nearby adult home.

Mrs. Jones was missing, last seen clad in a light-weight nightgown as the temperature hovered near the freezing point. Police readied a helicopter with heat-seeking equipment to begin a search for the air. Mrs. Jones was found huddled among bushes in a neighborhood field. She was confused, shivering and distraught.

These accounts are true. These incidents and many others happened in an affluent community in Western New York. They represent a growing problem in the long-term care community everywhere.

Adult homes provide primarily residential care -- room, board, some personal care and health-maintenance supervision. They do not provide medical or nursing care. An adult home is the first step in the continuum of long-term residential care.

Years ago, the resident of an adult residence was independent and mentally competent. She lived at the facility, but went shopping or to lunch with friends. She did her own banking, made her own decisions and still owned and drove a car. Today that resident is sicker and more frail. She has about a 50 percent chance of having Alzheimer's disease, becomes confused or disoriented easily and probably cannot tell you the day of the week.

The adult homes and the regulations for these facilities are not current.

Many people entered these facilities as fully competent and functioning adults. As they aged, problems developed. Residents are not sick enough to require full-time nursing in the next level of care. The family is overwhelmed by the relative's constant needs. Regulations have not kept up with the challenges.

Mrs. Gordon was a frequent visitor to an adult home. She enjoyed talking to her elderly aunt and many other residents. One day while grocery shopping, she recognized Mrs. Daly from the facility.

Mrs. Daly walked right through the check-out counter carrying a bag of cookies. Mrs. Gordon quickly laid two dollars on the counter to pay for the cookies and rushed outside in time to prevent Mrs. Daly from being hit by a car in the parking lot.

There are solutions. The potential for harm is great. Our elderly deserve to be protected. Most of these problems go unrecognized, or even worse, are ignored.

Staffing needs to be increased. Minimal supervision is provided, although it has been clearly demonstrated that more is needed.

Electronic- and computerized-monitoring systems can be installed at all exits. Unless one enters a six-digit code before opening the door, an alarm sounds. Better individual-care plans need to be developed.

There are some responsible and outstanding facilities that are doing their best to protect the residents in their care. But there are also those adult homes that have very poor safeguards.

No method exists to record these incidents for public scrutiny. The risk to the vulnerable remains a veiled but imminent danger.

FLORENCE BERGER-DOYLE lives in Williamsville.
For writer guidelines for columns appearing in this space, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Opinion Pages Guidelines, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240.

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