Innovative ideas for protecting dementia patients
Jan 23, 2012. National Post Editorial Board
As many as 500,000 Canadians are believed to suffer from some form of dementia — an umbrella term for a variety of degenerative neurological conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease. Primarily afflicting the elderly, Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia will be a major drain on Canada’s health-care system as the population rapidly ages over the next decade. Incidences of dementia are projected to rise 40% by 2020.
As a degenerative disorder, dementia slowly strips away the dignity and independence of its victims. But the process can be slow indeed, sometimes requiring many years before becoming serious enough to warrant hospitalization for full-time medical care. In the interim, it falls to relatives — often spouses who are elderly themselves — to care for and protect the afflicted.
And protection is often required. Those with dementia are not just benignly forgetful — they are often profoundly confused. It is not uncommon for senior citizens suffering from Alzheimer’s, for example, to wander out of their homes believing they’re on their way to work, or to retrieve their children from school.
This can happen at any time of the day or night and in any kind of weather. Sadly, such incidents sometimes end with the death of the disoriented sufferer. But even where tragedy is avoided, the need to be constantly on alert for such wandering puts enormous emotional and physical strains on caregivers.
That is why we welcome a new initiative by the Halifax Regional Police force, which is launching a trial program to affix GPS tracking bracelets — which look similar to digital wrist watches — to dementia patients at risk of wandering off. Such a program, once implemented, will allow the police to rapidly locate, and one hopes rescue, any dementia patient who is able to slip off unattended. The technology has the potential, not only to save resources required by a traditional search operation, but also to save lives.
This is not a perfect solution. GPS monitoring technology is more often associated with sex offenders than victims of a degenerative disease, so there exists a social stigma. And there are genuine concerns about the personal freedoms and privacy rights of dementia patients. There are also practical issues: The patient could remove the bracelet, the batteries might die, there’s a risk of false alarms, the systems are expensive are so on.
Some of these problems might be hashed out during the Halifax trial program. In the mean time, the tracking devices still reflect a significant step forward in protecting citizens left vulnerable by the ravages of a merciless disease. Should the Halifax program prove successful, as we very much hope it does, we would encourage other jurisdictions to consider similar programs.
While they wait, there are other steps that can be taken. Ontario is preparing to roll out a “Silver Advisory” program, modelled after the Amber Alert system, that will communicate critical information about missing seniors suffering from dementia within their local area. Peel Region, a municipality in the Greater Toronto Area, equips high-risk “wanderers” — typically Alzheimer’s patients, but the program is open to others with comparable neurological issues — with wrist-worn radio frequency transmitters, which broadcast a homing signal that Peel police can track within a two-kilometre radius.
In concert with emerging GPS tracking technologies, such initiatives may serve to make Canada a safer place for those suffering from dementia — and a more peaceful one for their weary caregivers.
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