Devices & Technology

GPS Now Tracking More Patients with Alzheimer’s, Dementia

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By Christina Orlovsky, contributor 

Sept. 25, 2009 - In today’s GPS-guided society, many of us would be completely turned around without technology telling us where to go. It directs us in our cars and even comes programmed into our cell phones. With this ever-present need to avoid being lost, it is no wonder that GPS technology is also being used to help us keep track of our loved ones—particularly those whose aging minds prevent them from keeping track of themselves.

From wristbands to shoes to so-called “intelligent environments,” Global Positioning Satellite, or GPS, technology is a growing trend in the tracking of patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. And with an estimated 35 million people living with these conditions the world over, according to the 2009 World Alzheimer Report released by Alzheimer’s Disease International, the need is clearly growing as well.

While manufacturers continue to develop new methods of tracking people with dementia, a debate remains about the benefits and the risks of the technology. In fact, the State of Indiana’s Health Finance Commission is currently weighing whether or not tracking devices should be mandated for some adults with dementia, debating between privacy concerns and safety benefits.

According to Majd Alwan, Ph.D., director of the Center for Aging Services Technologies (CAST), a program of the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging, the concerns are valid.

“From the technical perspective, GPS tracking is not for every situation or everyone; it works well outdoors, but GPS alone does not work well in buildings, like malls, or areas where the signal of GPS satellites is not received, such as tunnels or other potential hiding places where Alzheimer's and dementia victims tend to hide,” he explained.
Alwan added that there are physical and psychological reasons for concern as well.

“While GPS tracking—like any tracking or tagging technology—provides some peace of mind to caregivers and family members and facilitates finding the person, it is controversial from the individual's privacy perspective and hence subject to being rejected,” he said.

“The devices are attached in many cases to the person using a wrist or ankle band that locks in place; if the person rejects it, they may scratch or dig around the band and inflict wounds on themselves,” he added. “There is a need to balance the risk of being lost, or the [disease] stage at which the individual is, against the person's rejection or acceptance of the device. This needs to be taken into consideration and weighed against other options.”

Keeping the rejection issue in mind, some companies are creating GPS devices that don’t intrude on a person’s sense of privacy or independence. One such product comes from a partnership between GTX Corp., a Los Angeles, California-based GPS technology company, and footwear manufacturer Aetrex Worldwide, which have joined forces to create a shoe embedded with GPS technology. The shoes, which could be on the market by spring 2010, are designed to allow family members to monitor and receive alerts about the whereabouts of the person wearing them.  

“There are a growing number of seniors suffering from dementia and we know over 50 percent wander without anyone’s knowledge of where they are and where they are heading,” said Chris Walsh, chief operations officer of GTX Corp. “The shoe we intend on developing with Aetrex should help authorized family members, friends or caretakers reduce their stress and anguish by enabling them to locate their loved ones instantly with the click of mouse from any desktop computer or mobile phone with Internet access.”

Research is also underway in facilities worldwide to integrate GPS technology with other types of tracking and sensor technology, such as radiofrequency, to create intelligent environments that monitor dementia-afflicted hospital patients or those who reside in assisted-living facilities. At the University of South Florida, in Tampa, researchers are developing tracking systems designed to prevent dementia patients from wandering from their assisted-living facility, while across the world, researchers at the University of Granada, in Spain, are developing model rooms with sensors that help dependent people remain safe in their environment.

While the future use of GPS to keep Alzheimer’s and dementia sufferers safe in their own surroundings remains to be seen, the Alzheimer’s Association and other research and advocacy groups for the aging population continue to focus on this and other technological solutions. Through the Everyday Technologies for Alzheimer Care (ETAC) grant, a research funding initiative between the Alzheimer’s Association and Intel Corporation, the organization continues to actively seek research studies on emerging technologies.

As scientists, engineers, patient advocacy groups and medical professionals continue to work together, there are certainly more innovative, high-tech solutions to come.

See related NurseZone story:
Harnessing Technology to Better Care for Older Patients

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