By Jennifer Vardy Little
What started out as a way to ensure a family member didn’t wander off has turned into an initiative spread across three provinces.
Nancy and Ron Arenburg were devastated when Ron’s father, Merl, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The longtime volunteers with Valley Search and Rescue were aware that it wasn’t just Merl’s medical condition they had to worry about.
“One of the symptoms in people with Alzheimer’s have is a tendency to wander,” said Nancy.
It was a fear for Merl. Shortly after he was diagnosed, he turned to the South Alton couple for help.
“He was still lucid at that time, and he asked us if there was anything we could put on him to track him if he wandered off,” Nancy said.
People with conditions like Alzheimer’s and autism are particularly concerning for search and rescue volunteers. Unlike a hunter lost in the woods where searchers likely have a starting point, people with Alzheimer’s and autism are known to simply wander.
Merl’s question started Nancy and Ron on a quest, searching for something, anything, that could help. GPS wouldn’t work, Nancy said, because it won’t work in all terrains.
Their search led them to Project Lifesaver, a US-based company that was providing the product to a number of Canadian provinces already. A bracelet that looks like a watch with no face is worn by the user transmits on a radio frequency that can be tracked if they’re ever lost. Radio frequencies have long been used to track wildlife, so the Arenburgs felt confident it would work here in Nova Scotia.
Project Lifesaver wouldn’t sell to individuals, so the Arenburgs took the idea to the search and rescue group, which jumped onboard.
A grant from the Emergency Measures Organization allowed the Arenburgs to train other such groups across province in the technology.
"All 24 ground search and rescue teams have the training and technology, and 14 of those teams now operate the program,” Ron said.
Related agencies - including RCMP and municipal police forces, Department of Community Services and the Victorian Order of Nurses - also received information about the initiative.
Client number one was Merl, who wore the unit until he passed away two years ago. Other people began lining up for the units and the technology made a difference in many lives, Nancy said
Knowing we’ve brought peace of mind to these families is the biggest award. - Nancy Arenburg
She tells a story about a seven-year-old girl with autism who wandered off in Margaretsville. She had managed to walk two kilometres from her home in the time it took the Arenburgs to rush to the house. Seventeen minutes after they got there, she was back in her living room.
The results of that rescue are much different than another Nova Scotia story from December 2009 when another seven-year-old wandered away from his Cape Breton home. James Delorey, who had autism and didn’t speak, was found one kilometre from his home three days later following a massive ground search and rescue effort.
“Nothing says that nothing terrible would’ve happened if he had been wearing a unit,” says Nancy, “but it might have gotten him home faster.”
The units bring peace of mind to families who constantly worried their loved ones might have wandered off. Nancy tells another story, of a man whose wife has Alzheimer’s.
“They loved going to dances, but they stopped going out at all. He told us he was afraid to live life,” Nancy recalled.
A month later, when they went back to change the batteries in his wife’s unit, the man was visibly relaxed.
“He told us the program was such a peace of mind,” she said.
That’s why the Arenburgs are so passionate about Project Lifesaver, she said. It has now spread into PEI and New Brunswick and they’ve helped train teams in those provinces on the technology.
In November, the Arenburgs were honoured for their efforts to help grow Project Lifesaver when they were flown to Toronto to accept the National Search and Rescue Program Award of Excellence, on behalf of Valley Search and Rescue, for their innovative work on Project Lifesaver.
The province nominated the Arenburgs and Valley Search and Rescue for the national award for their dedication to citizens and for implementing Project Lifesaver across the province.
For Nancy, it’s not the awards, but knowing other Nova Scotia families are benefitting from their efforts that makes her work worthwhile.
“We’ve lived and breathed this for the last three years,” she said. “While it’s nice to get an award, knowing we’ve brought peace of mind to these families is the biggest award.”