At the end of a winding driveway, in a Buckner farmhouse nestled among acres of soybeans, a family huddles around a lace-covered table — trying to find ways to let the world know about their mom, wife, grandmother.
By LEE HILL KAVANAUGH
The Kansas City Star
The dining room has become the Cook family’s war room since Hellen Cook, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, walked away from the couple’s second home near Warsaw, Mo., and into danger.
The missing woman illustrates a growing national problem as the aging baby boomer demographic struggles with rising cases of dementia and the many problems that accompany it.
When a family finds itself with a lost loved one, there is no manual on what to do to find her. The Cook family is learning by trial and error: who to call, how to search, how to let the world know, how to keep the momentum going.
They are not giving up, even after seven days. Not yet. “She’s my mom,” said Terri Cook. “How could I?”
The family table, which has brimmed over the years with Thanksgiving dinners, Christmas morning brunches and birthday and anniversary celebrations, is now a hub of activity trying to save a life.
Chargers for four laptops and four smartphones snake into a power strip. Social media sites glow on screens as two of the half-dozen family members and friends tap out messages to the world. Phones ring every few minutes, every call a possibility of hope.
Hellen Cook was last seen last Saturday around noon near Warsaw, a little more than 100 miles southeast of Buckner. She was wearing jean shorts and a light-colored shirt. She had no identification and no money.
Hand-scrawled notes of tips plotted on a paper map show a path. A sighting at a Dollar General store in Grain Valley. Another in Tightwad, Mo. Another at the Wal-Mart in Warsaw. Some possible sightings hold promise. Others, such as the report of an elderly woman in Waldo, do not.
“We check every tip out ourselves,” in addition to calling the police or sheriff in the area, said Terri Cook, Hellen’s daughter.
Several nights this week, the family has organized volunteers from Hellen and her husband Howard’s church, the Blue Springs Assembly of God Church on Duncan Road. A prayer vigil was held Friday night. This morning, the family hopes to have 200 volunteers to check wooded areas near Blue Springs lakes and streams. Another search group, meeting at the First Baptist Church of Clinton, will cover farms and back roads in that area.
The Cook family’s church in Blue Springs is just a half mile from a nursing home where Hellen Cook worked for years as a nurse. She knew the neighborhood well, and there are many fast food restaurants and air-conditioned stores she might wander into.
“We’ve come a long way figuring out what to do since Saturday night,” Terri Cook said. “We just keep asking, ‘What can we do?’
“Gosh, I’m hoping that she shoplifts somewhere so we can find her,” she said, laughing. Before the disease ravaged her mother’s mind, she would have been horrified at the suggestion.
“If she was here, she’d tell you how to spell her name, double l’s and don’t shorten it, she’d say. ... My mom is strong and sassy and feisty. She grew up poor, working in the cotton fields. Her family often slept in barns. Mom would think nothing of going up to somebody’s house and drinking from their garden hose.
“If anyone can survive in this weather, she can. And that’s our hope, that’s what we’re clinging to.”
Howard Cook last saw his wife sitting on a porch swing as he put away the lawn mower at their second home in Benton County. When he came back, she was gone. But the 6-foot-high cattle gate was still shut, cocked at the same angle he always puts it when he locks it up. He assumed she was napping, and he took a shower.
“I’m certain now she scrambled over that gate like a monkey,” he said.
His wife, just 4 feet 10 inches tall, is not a typical 72-year-old, he said. For years she walked seven miles daily. Sometimes, she walked the seven miles twice, forgetting she’d just walked it.
“We think she’s trying to walk home,” he said. “But by now she’d be so disorientated, she probably couldn’t even say her name.”
The disease has grown worse in the last three weeks. Two weeks earlier, while Howard Cook was stopped at a light in Grain Valley, she opened the car door and started walking. With construction all around and a doctor’s appointment to get to, he thought she was angry and decided to let her walk it off. Police called him an hour later. Hellen had nearly made it to Blue Springs. A woman picked her up because she noticed something was wrong.
“Hellen told her she was from Blue Springs,” Howard Cook said, shaking his head.
The Benton County Sheriff’s Department organized three canine search teams, as well as people searching on horseback, ATVs and in a helicopter.
But all three dog teams lost her trail in the same place: an intersection of Missouri 7 and Cold Springs Avenue just west of Warsaw. Residents confirmed seeing an elderly woman walking fast with a big stick and carrying boots. (According to her family, she recently started “collecting” items in the neighborhood, such as shoes, a shovel, one sock.)
“The police think she got in a car,” said Howard Cook. With the trail cold, the sheriff suspended the searches midweek.
Last Sunday morning, Terri Cook drove the eight hours from her home in Wisconsin to Buckner. For two days and nights she didn’t sleep as she and her siblings made phone calls and fliers.
“I close my eyes and think about her curled up somewhere, all alone and in pain...,” Terri Cook stops. “Nighttime is the worst. I’m glad to be exhausted.”
The Alzheimer’s Association in Wisconsin asked Terri Cook to keep notes of the steps she and her family have taken so that perhaps someday they could share what they did with other families of lost loved ones.
“I feel like I’m a pest, especially to police and media, but I keep trying to be nice,” she said. “Making the public aware is my best hope.”
She’s learned how to delegate. Nieces and nephews skilled at social media set up a website getting the word out. Terri’s brother is in Warsaw organizing volunteer searches and handing out fliers to businesses there. There are twice daily calls to area hospitals and homeless shelters. A garbage company in Jackson County is giving fliers to their haulers, and a UPS manager has done the same for his drivers.
“My mom loves Wal-Marts and McDonald’s,” Terri Cook said. So every Wal-Mart manager between Warsaw and Blue Springs has gotten a phone call or been given a flier or been visited by the family. “They said they can’t post anything but all the managers are aware. People have been so kind.”
More family members drove Interstate 70 between Kansas City and St. Louis, stopping at truck stops and rest areas to post fliers, just in case someone gave her a ride there.
“My mom grew up near St. Louis so her mind might remember that better than the later memories,” Terri Cook said. “But she could be anywhere.”
On Thursday, Bill Spano, who works at the Independence Emergency Operation Center and is a member of the Truman Search and Rescue Team, came to search. He said his group had only heard about the missing woman on the radio that day.
“You’re doing everything you can,” he comforted her. “There’s probably 30 jurisdictions between Warsaw and Blue Springs. Keep at it.”
Howard Cook blames himself. Retired from the Lake City Army Ammunition Plant, he and Hellen reared four children, who all graduated from Fort Osage High School in the 1980s. One son became a Navy Seal, but after retiring from the service in 2009 took his own life. The family believes the trauma of his death might have accelerated the progression of Hellen Cook’s Alzheimer’s.
“I vowed I will take care of her myself until she dies,” said Howard Cook, who has been married to Hellen for 51 years. “I learned now you can’t take your eyes off of her. But how do you do things like put away a lawn mower without watching her constantly? I don’t know what I’ll do.
“But the Lord knows where she is. I just wish he’d tell me so I could go get her.”
To reach Lee Hill Kavanaugh, call 816-234-4420 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.