GPS devices for dementia

Patsy Westcott / 20 May 2014

GPS devices and dementia – a sensible way to keep sufferers safe, or an assault on their liberty?



Satellite monitoring systems – aka ‘personal safety locating devices’ – are being touted as the way to track dementia patients who ‘go missing’.

Ranging in price from £7.99 to more than £900, they use the same GPS – global positioning system – technology as satnavs and mobile phones, to keep tabs on people living with dementia in case they get lost.

They include watches, mobile phones and palm-sized gadgets that can be slipped into a pocket or clipped on a key ring, as well as more permanent gizmos that are implanted under the skin.

Do GPS locators help people with dementia and their relatives?

Sussex Police is one of a growing number of police forces, along with local councils and health authorities, to invest in GPS locators. The force bought six devices in 2012, an initiative that provoked a heated press debate about their rights and wrongs.

The results speak for themselves. Between September and November last year, the MindMe system they use was logged on to 4,050 times along the south coast, meaning 4,050 fewer calls to the police. The force has now bought 15 more locators for those at risk.

Sergeant Suzie Mitchell, who is one of the leading lights behind the initiative, says, ‘The police are the first port of call if someone goes missing. Locators enabling people to check the whereabouts of loved ones without phoning us frees up our resources – and provides them with peace of mind.’

But is GPS monitoring a sensible precaution that provides freedom to those with dementia and reassurance to their carers? Or is it an infringement of personal liberty with shades of criminal tagging? There are no easy answers.

‘Six out of ten people living with dementia wander – or “walk”, a term preferred by many experts on the grounds that it’s less stigmatising. It can help to relieve stress and boredom and provide exercise,’ says Hannah Clack, of the Alzheimer’s Society (www.alzheimers.org.uk).

The ethical dilemma of GPS locators for people with dementia

Where going for walks may be more problematic is for the four out of ten people who get lost and turn up frightened and confused, miles away.

In 1968, my 85-year-old grandfather, who had Alzheimer’s and lived with us, took to tramping the leafy suburbs around our home. Usually he didn’t stray far. But on one heart-stopping occasion he was missing for several hours.

After increasingly frantic calls to neighbours, shopkeepers and the police, he was eventually found safe and sound several streets away. Tracking devices are intended to put an end to what was, for us, a nerve-wracking time.

‘Walking technology can provide more independence and control for the person with dementia and less anxiety for their carer,’ says Hannah. ‘But it’s vital the person with dementia has their say. And it shouldn’t be a substitute for good care.’

Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK (ageuk.org.uk), agrees. ‘It’s important to ensure technology is used only where it delivers real benefits and, as far as possible, with the consent of those involved,’ she says.

Steve Milton is a director at Innovations in Dementia (www.innovationsindementia.org.uk), which works to enhance the lives of those with dementia. ‘Most people we’ve talked to don’t object to monitoring if it helps them stay independent for longer.’

He agrees the technology does have the potential to be misused, but points out that earlier diagnosis enables people to decide whether they want to use such systems now, or some time in the future.

Studies suggest that people who get lost are likely to go into residential care sooner – a move neither the person with dementia nor their carers may want.

Dementia and the right to walk

Desmond O’Neill, professor of medical gerontology at Trinity College, Dublin, worries that locators may become overused and could result in a false sense of security. Writing last year in the British Medical Journal, he observes that ‘walking’, far from being aimless, can be an attempt to communicate.

‘If you can discover why they do it and find a way to meet their need, it will often decrease,’ adds Hannah Clack.

Perhaps the last word should go to someone living with dementia. Norman McNamara, 56, from Torquay, who has Lewy body dementia, has campaigned for people with dementia to have locators.

‘I have one and it is invaluable.’ Norman admits he has no sense of direction. ‘You can argue all you like about ethics, but at the end of the day it saves lives. It’s as simple as that.’

For more information about assistive technology (AT) for people with dementia, visit www.atdementia.org.uk 

This article was published in the June 2014 issue of Saga Magazine. Subscribe to the print edition or the digital edition, for more great articles like this delivered direct to you every month.

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