AHS to launch project that will outfit at-risk patients with GPS tracking
Published June 10, 2014
The Calgary Sun
Author: Michael Platt
Three hundred missing persons investigations a year, all linked to Calgary hospitals and health facilities.
For city police, it’s a massive investment in terms of manpower and resources to find people who are often confused, scared and unable to remember where they are, or even where they belong.
Sometimes the search can be desperate: A senior, suffering dementia, who wanders outside in the bitter cold without a coat or winter clothing needs to be found immediately, but when Alzheimer’s and other cognitive impairments cloud the mind, a missing person’s fate is often a matter of luck and the goodwill of strangers.
In Calgary, GPS tracking may soon reduce that search to a matter of minutes, no luck involved.
“Any technology we can add to the tool box is a valuable addition,” said Sgt. John Hebert, head the Calgary Police Service’s Missing Persons Team.
It’s a pilot project being launched by Alberta Health Services, following success in Europe, and jurisdictions closer to home, including some cities in Nova Scotia and Ontario.
What once seemed like space-age technology is now common, and the same satellite navigation systems are used for everything from locating lost smart phones, to giving directions to the nearest pizza joint.
In the case of dementia patients, the Global Positioning System device is usually worn like a watch or bracelet — and from there, it’s a simple matter of switching on a computer and looking on a map to see where the GPS tracking device (and presumably the patient) is currently located.
In one case, police in Halifax reportedly took just 11 minutes to track down an Alzheimer’s patient who’d gone missing two hours earlier, after his caregivers finally called for help.
The savings in police resources and reduced emotional anguish for family alone should make the use of GPS tracking a slam dunk in the health-care system — but the idea of tagging seniors and other patients is not without its critics.
Everywhere the devices have been tried — similar tracking technology has been used on children with autism — there have been critics who question whether it’s an infringement on personal freedom, and the right not to be tracked by authority.
But so far, the added safety for such patients has outweighed concerns over loss of liberty.
Caroline Connolly cares for her 84-year-old mom at home — and so far, she’s had no problems with Doris wandering away, despite dementia and significant short-term memory loss.
But Connolly says she wouldn’t hesitate to provide her mom with GPS tracking, if she ever felt there was a danger of the senior getting lost.
“We put them on our phones, and I have a GPS unit in my car, so in case it gets stolen, they can track it down,” said Connolly.
“If we have GPS for things like that, why wouldn’t we want it to protect the people most precious to us? We could prevent all sorts of tragedies.”
On Wednesday, Alberta Health Services has scheduled a press conference to unveil the GPS project, which includes researchers with AHS and the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine.
“Currently, more than 40,000 Albertans are living with a form of dementia, and about three out of every five seniors with dementia living in the community experience wandering, which poses significant safety risks and can be difficult to manage,” reads the press release.
“A research trial involving seniors with dementia in Calgary and Grande Prairie aims to mitigate these risks.”
With 747,000 Canadians currently suffering from dementia, a number expected to double to 1.4 million by 2031, caring for people with cognitive impairment is going to be a major challenge in the next few decades.
Jill Petrovic, spokeswoman for the Alzheimer Society of Calgary, says keeping such patients safe is paramount — and GPS, if used prudently, appears to be a useful tool.
“Our primary concern is always the well being of people impacted by dementia in our community, and that includes safety issues,” said Petrovic.
“If we can apply strategies that have been successful in other countries, for the benefit of local families, that’s encouraging.
“And although it’s a widely-debated issue, it really comes down to making some tough personal choices. Ideally, the family would have these discussions earlier on, as part of their future planning.”