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GPS supports seniors with dementia, their caregivers

June 17, 2014

Technology may reduce risks associated with wandering

Story by James Stevenson; photo by Paul Rotzinger

Shen Gaidhar was worried for her grandfather-in-law, who found himself living alone after his wife of 73 years recently died.

“My family and I didn’t want to take him out of his home but, at the same time, we’re worried that he might wander away from his building and not know how to get home,” says Gaidhar.

Which is why the family signed him up for a collaborative research project that uses GPS technology to locate Albertans with mild dementia who may be at risk for wandering and getting lost.

Shannon Barnard of AHS and Peyman Azad Khaneghah and Pranshu Arora of the University of Alberta test GPS tracking technology which is being used to monitor seniors with dementia who are at risk for wandering.“It’s really just great peace of mind, knowing that we can track him if we need to,” says Gaidhar. “Being able to see where he is – and that he’s safe – is very comforting. It’s nice to know that he’s being taken care of.”

The Locator Device Project is underway in Calgary and Grande Prairie. The six-month trial currently involves 10 clients in each city and examines how GPS technology within a wrist watch, a shoe, and a small cellphone-like device may help improve the safety and quality of life for these Albertans and their caregivers.

The project is being jointly run by researchers at Alberta Health Services (AHS) and the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine, and is funded by Innovation and Advanced Education within the Government of Alberta.

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. The number of Alberta seniors with dementia is expected to exceed 100,000 by 2038.

“We have a responsibility to provide Albertans who are at risk with supports that will enable them to enjoy their independence without coming into harm,” says Don Juzwishin, director of Health Technology Assessment and Innovation for AHS. “And we believe the locator project, which uses sophisticated GPS technology, will also support family caregivers and emergency responders to assist dementia clients who have wandered or become lost.”

Trial results will be analyzed later this year by faculty and graduate students from the University of Alberta and used to inform technology options for home care clients and their families.

The GPS technology provides caregivers with real-time location information through text messaging and email with programmable software. GPS-user location is reported and the co-ordinates are plotted on a Google map.

Caregivers can access this technology through a personal computer, tablet or smartphone.

SafeTracks GPS of Red Deer is the GPS technology provider.

“Research suggests that GPS technology supports those living with dementia to be safe, independent and active members of their community,” says Lili Liu, an occupational therapist at UAlberta, whose research includes the application of technologies to support health care aides in home and community care.

“This trial study will help us determine if GPS can be an effective and efficient support tool when designed to acknowledge the unique needs of each individual. This project is also a great training opportunity for our occupational therapy student researchers studying at our satellite campus in Calgary.”

Partners in this project include the Calgary Police Service, RCMP, the Primary Care Network in Grande Prairie, the Alzheimer Society of Alberta and Northwest Territories, the Alzheimer Society of Calgary, Emergency Medical Services (EMS) and the Seniors Health Strategic Clinical Network within AHS.