A law enforcement official shows off a wearable tracking device used in the Project Lifesaver program, which is designed to help local law enforcement agencies quickly rescue lost residents with cognitive impairments. (Photo courtesy Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office)

In a sprawling community that is home to many older people, there is a greater risk of some residents with dementia or other cognitive issues getting confused and lost when they venture outdoors.

A program administered locally by the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office aims to help find those lost residents safely and quickly. The Sheriff’s Office is hoping more Harpswell residents with a cognitively impaired loved one will enroll in the program, which relies on wearable location-tracking technology.

The program, called Project Lifesaver, was rolled out locally in 2016, but few residents signed up, said Lt. Andrew Feeney, of the Sheriff’s Office. Only a handful of Harpswell families are currently participating, he said.

“It just never really took off,” Feeney said. “I don’t know if we didn’t market it right.”

This spring, the agency began a renewed push to get the word out about Project Lifesaver and its ability to quickly rescue “wandering” residents with cognitive impairments.

The program is specifically designed for adults and children with conditions that can lead to wandering, such as autism, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, Down syndrome and others. Participants wear a special bracelet equipped with a radio-frequency tracking device that can help law enforcement officials locate them within minutes.

Feeney said participation requires the aid of a household member or caretaker who is willing and able to periodically check the tracking device’s battery life and contact law enforcement if the wearer goes missing.

The Sheriff’s Office will not only train the caretaker on the equipment but also visit the participant’s home every one to two months to replace the device’s batteries, which usually last about 60 days, he said. There is no charge to participate.

“It’s completely cost-free for the client,” Feeney said.

Harpswell resident Gayle Hays said she learned about Project Lifesaver at a recent meeting of the local Triad chapter. Triad is a cooperative partnership between law enforcement agencies, older adults, and service providers for older adults that aims to help reduce the victimization of older residents and improve their quality of life.

Hays, a member of both Triad and Harpswell Aging at Home’s Steering Committee, has since become a local advocate for Project Lifesaver.

“We have the oldest population in Maine, so a program like this is most likely needed more here in Harpswell than in other parts of Maine,” she said. “My goal is to get the word out.”

Recovery times for lost residents wearing a Project Lifesaver tracking device average 30 minutes, a reduction of 95% compared to those without one, according to Project Lifesaver International. The nonprofit was founded in 1999 in Chesapeake, Virginia, and is now headquartered in Port St. Lucie, Florida.

The program is administered at the local level by public safety agencies, including eight agencies in Maine, its website says. When an agency decides to implement the program, Project Lifesaver will equip it with the technology and provide training to those involved.

Training covers use of the equipment, implementation of strategies designed for the program, and community policing courses that provide a basic understanding of cognitive conditions and the behaviors of people with those conditions, it says.

Since its inception, agencies participating in Project Lifesaver have rescued roughly 2,500 people with cognitive disabilities, primarily in the United States and Canada, with no serious injuries or deaths reported, according to the nonprofit.

Feeney said the renewed marketing push seems to be working, and that the Sheriff’s Office has signed up two local residents within the past few weeks.

He recalled a 2022 incident in Harpswell in which an older woman with cognitive issues left home because she mistakenly believed her husband was trying to harm her. The Sheriff’s Office tried unsuccessfully to find her with the help of a police dog, he said.

Fortunately, a neighbor spotted her outside, shouting, about 45 minutes later and called law enforcement.

“Had she been wearing our device, we would have found her right away,” Feeney said.

Harpswell-area residents interested in participating can contact Feeney via email at afeeney@cumberlandcounty.org, or by calling 207-774-1444 ext. 2114.

Have a comment or news tip? Please contact J. Craig Anderson via email.