August 15, 2012 1:01 pm
Updated: March 20, 2013 11:35 am

GPS technology, ID bracelets among options for people with Alzheimer’s who wander

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TORONTO – On Sunday night, Halifax Police responded to a call that a man with Alzheimer’s disease had been missing for two hours. With the aid of a watch-like GPS device, police tracked the man and located him crawling in a wooded area eleven minutes after receiving the call.

The man is a participant in Project S.O.F.T. Ware, a program that has given GPS bracelets to ten people with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia and a history of wandering. S.O.F.T. stands for Satellite Option Finding Technology, and works much like a smartphone.

Project S.O.F.T. Ware

Halifax Regional Police Cst. Matthew MacGillivray says the bracelet worn by participants in the program sends a message to a secure tracking website that police can log in to check anywhere with an Internet connection.

Police can call participants on their bracelet to ask if they’re okay and if they know where they are. The device has a speed sensor to detect unusual behaviour (like getting a in a car for those who don’t drive) and also sends a notification if the person falls down and hits the bracelet.

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Detection is difficult if the battery dies, if the device is submerged in water, or if the person removes the bracelet altogether, though MacGillivray notes most clients don’t think to remove and that wearing it typically becomes habit.

The program is available to residents of Halifax, Dartmouth and Bedford, Nova Scotia, and is free for the one-year pilot phase thanks to funding from the Nova Scotia Department of Seniors.

He says after field-testing, GPS was found to be the best technology available in terms of accuracy and requiring the least amount of resources when compared to radio signal tracking equipment, for example.

“With RFID [radio frequency identification], you still have to get officers out looking with antennae and you still have to activate ground search and rescue,” says MacGillivray. “Whereas with GPS, I can just use my smartphone, locate the person and call them on phone within 10 minutes. I don’t know another solution that is quicker, that requires less resources than that.”

However, some are critical of the GPS method since it requires signals from satellites that aren’t always accessible if the lost person is inside buildings or under heavy wooded coverage. GPS bracelets also rely on cellular service, and therefore can become less useful in dead spots or rural areas.

Another option is the radio signal tracking technology mentioned above. This type of bracelet is used in a program called “Project Lifesaver.”

Project Lifesaver

In Canada, this initiative is either run directly by local police, or by a volunteer team under the jurisdiction of local police and affiliated with Project Lifesaver International, sometimes with the aid of federal grants. This technology has its own limitations, such as an operating range of just under two kilometres.

Project Lifesaver is used by 24 separate teams independent from but under the jurisdiction of police in Nova Scotia and by six local police departments in Ontario. One team each in Manitoba, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island are currently waiting for training.

Co-founder of Nova Scotia’s program, Ron Arenburg, says only one full-blown search has occurred where the Project Lifesaver team arrived on scene before the missing person was found (note that they have only been active since 2011).

Currently 33 people are enrolled in Nova Scotia’s program; about 90 per cent are children with autism, and a few are clients with Alzheimer’s.

In Ontario, the OPP and York Regional Police both use Project Lifesaver. Data from 2011 shows the program was never responsible for finding the missing people with dementia, as they were located by other means (i.e. another officer found them or they were found through citizen tips).

However in April 2012, York Region’s Project Lifesaver program was successfully used to locate a woman suffering from dementia in about four and a half hours.

“It’s an education, awareness…it’s very isolated as to where [Project Lifesaver] is offered here in Ontario,” says Provincial Search and Rescue Coordinator Jamie Stirling. “Say your mom has Alzheimer’s. It’s you who has to decide to enrol your mother into Project Lifesaver, it’s not something that happens automatically as part of the health care system.”

Safely Home

While comparing Project Lifesaver data across cities and provinces is made difficult by the lack of unified protocol across the country, the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada and the RCMP advertise a national Safely Home identification bracelet program (no technological component) on their respective websites. If someone is lost, police run the ID number in a national database to find out where the person lives and whom to contact. This is a partnership between RCMP and the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada, as promoted on their websites.

Globalnews.ca contacted both organizations to see the success rate of the 20-year-old Safely Home program versus a typical ground search and rescue operation, but neither agency had data to provide.

“What we believe is needed is an independent review process of locating devices so that consumers can make informed decisions about whether or not a device is right for them. I can tell you that we are taking steps to strengthen the Safely Home program so that we can get a better sense of outcomes,” added Schulz in an email to Globalnews.ca.

In Halifax, Const. MacGillivray’s GPS pilot phase seems to be one of the few programs making a solid attempt at reviewing the locating devices.

“We are closely monitoring to see how often clients go missing, what the benefit is-tangibles like how quickly do we find somebody and intangibles like what does the family member feel that we can’t quantify?” said MacGillivray.

MacGillivray also says that Halifax Police have been working closely with the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada and representatives from various stakeholders in GPS tracking as to how to best help people with dementias who are prone to wandering. He says any program is better than nothing.

© 2012 Shaw Media

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