By Alexia Campbell and Linda Trischitta, Sun Sentinel
10:34 PM EST, March 2, 2011
Two missing elderly men turned up dead Tuesday in area canals, highlighting the all-too-familiar cases of elderly South Floridians, many suffering from dementia, whose disappearances often end tragically.
Mark Kanners, 71, reportedly drove into a canal near his home in the Kings Point community west of Delray Beach, according to the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office. His son reported him missing in January, but it wasn’t until Tuesday morning that a man spotted his car underwater while fishing in the canal.
In Coconut Creek, a 90-year-old man went for a stroll and apparently fell into a canal near his condo. Joseph Rabitz disappeared Sunday and his body was found Tuesday, police said. He was deaf, legally blind and suffered from dementia.
There are 4.45 million people older than 60 living in Florida, according to the state Department of Elder Affairs. Canals that line the state’s roadways can be a lethal danger for them.
In 2009, the Florida Highway Patrol reported that 772 cars ended up in canals. That includes crashes that killed 16 people.
Kanners was behind the wheel of his 2003 Hyundai sedan when deputies and firefighters pulled him from the water in the 400 block of Saxony I. It’s unclear if health problems caused him to drive over the hedges and into the water.
His son, who reported him missing Jan. 22, said Kanners had not been diagnosed with dementia, but showed signs of confusion.
Kanners’ car sank to the bottom of the canal and was not visible to passers-by, the Sheriff’s Office said. Deputies had searched the area with a dog, but saw nothing in the water.
Neighbor Dana Vincent, 59, said the dawn light revealed the sunken Hyundai on Tuesday, when an out-of-town guest of hers went fishing. He later told Vincent and her husband what he saw, and Vincent immediately thought of their missing neighbor.
“All I could think was, this poor family is probably worried out of their mind,” she said.
Vincent called authorities around 6 p.m. and firefighters and deputies arrived. A few hours later, the car was towed out of the canal, she said.
It is unclear how long Kanners was in the water. The Palm Beach County Medical Examiner’s Office is conducting an autopsy.
The case of another missing man ended on a happier note Tuesday when he turned up safely at his Davie home hours after he was reported missing. Andre Schreiber, 78, who suffers from dementia, likely was confused by a contruction detour when returning home from a friend’s house Monday night, police said.
“With dementia and his normal route distorted, maybe that was enough” to disorient him, Davie police Sgt. Greg Gasse said.
And then there is the story of Eve Rubino, a plucky cancer patient in her 70s who calmly dialed 911 from her cell phone in June after her car ended up in a Coral Springs canal. The water was rising to her mouth before four police officers pulled her to safety.
What to do when a senior citizen with health issues may wander or has problems with driving?
Attorney Alice Reiter Feld, who practices elder law in Palm Beach and Broward counties, says driving rights is a big source of family conflict.
“Driving is a privilege but it’s not something you willy-nilly take away because someone is 80 years old,” Reiter Feld said. “You’ve got to weigh the rights of the senior vs. the rights of the public.”
If driving skills are in question — after a few fender benders, if disorientation happens during trips or the elderly person gets lost — Reiter Feld recommends that clients attend an AARP driving course (www.aarp.org) taught online or in more than 40 South Florida classroom locations.
Graduates sometimes can get discounts on their insurance or emergency service memberships.
“What I’ve done with some families is recommend that the elder take the class, get retested and if you pass, you can drive,” Reiter Feld says. “If you don’t, you can’t.”
Reiter Feld says that if gently questioning an elder about his or her driving skills is too sticky an issue, a confidential report can be made to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles by calling 850-617-3814 or by getting the form to mail in from http://flhsmv.gov/forms/72190.pdf.
The driver will get a letter from the state that instructs him or her to visit a doctor for a check of hearing and vision and to provide medical clearance before the person can get back behind the wheel.
“For seniors who may be losing control in general, driving the car is the last bastion of control and freedom, even if it’s just to go to Publix and back,” Reiter Feld said. “Taking the car [away] means their life changes forever, and seniors will tell you it’s the worst part of aging, other than running out of money.”
For elders who go missing, whether on the road or on foot, the state also offers the Silver Alert service that can be utilized for Florida’s seniors who may have dementia or are among the state’s 501,000 Alzheimer’s patients.
Reports about missing seniors can be made with local law enforcement for anyone with a diagnosed cognitive impairment. That report — which should include information about the person’s attire, car, license tag and schedule — must first be made locally before it appears on the state’s electronic road signs.
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