Gone Missing: Tech Tools Locate a Loved One Who Wanders

Freedom to go where we want, when we want. It’s a deeply held American value, part of our cultural DNA. The iconic 1960s TV series, Route 66, about two young men coming of age as they drive cross-country in a Corvette, still resonates.

But what if the one with wanderlust is your aging parent with dementia? You don’t want to lock her in her home, but you’re also terrified that she’ll take off on foot and go missing for an hour or a day—or more. So-called “elopement” takes just an instant. Even experienced caregivers can briefly turn their backs, only to discover that their charge has slipped out the door and disappeared. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 6 out of 10 people with dementia will wander eventually. The risks are real.

These GPS Tools Can Help You Keep Track of Your Loved One

But now there’s an app for that. The same kind of GPS devices that enable you to find your missing smartphone can also help you find your missing loved one. All involve a subscription for some kind of tracking device that is worn by your loved one, paired with text or email alerts, tracking apps and/or a hotline network. Among the options:

Project Lifesaver: Requires your loved one to wear a personal transmitter ankle bracelet. If he wanders, you receive an alert. When you call the local Project Lifesaver agency, a trained team goes into action to find your loved one. Most people are found within a half hour, a few miles from home. This service specializes in helping people with cognitive conditions that cause them to wander. The international search and rescue program also works with local public safety agencies to educate staff about risks of wandering.

GPS Smart Sole: If your loved one objects to wearing a tracking device or is likely to forget to put it on, this option may be the solution. GPS Smart Sole is an insert equipped with GPS technology that fits into most shoes with removable insoles. This works best if your loved one wears the same shoes daily or if you purchase multiple pairs of inserts. The device transmits location data every 10 minutes via smart phone, tablet or computer. You can define a safe radius for your loved one; if she goes beyond, you receive an email or text alert.

Alzheimer’s Association Comfort Zone™: This service, paired with Medic-Alert, uses location based mapping to track your loved one. The locater device can either be worn or mounted in a car, and transmits signals via satellites and cell towers to a web-based system that you can monitor. Options include real-time location monitoring, alerts if your loved one leaves a safety zone that you define, and emergency assistance if your loved one wanders.

But Technology, Alone, Is Not the Full Solution

These tracking systems can help your loved one to live safely at home as long as elopement episodes are relatively infrequent. But it’s important to understand that this technology doesn’t prevent wandering, any more than a wheel chair alarm can prevent falls. Be sure to have a current photo or digital image of your loved one, in case he goes missing. Call the local police as soon as you realize he’s wandered off. Massachusetts is one of three dozen states to participate in Silver Alert—a public notification system, similar to Amber Alerts for missing children, that broadcasts information about missing individuals with Alzheimer’s and other dementias or cognitive conditions.

If wandering becomes a serious safety concern, you may need to consider moving your loved one to a secure setting that specializes in memory care. Even that’s not foolproof, since it’s still possible for someone to exit a “secure” setting; however, there are several systems used both to prevent wandering and to quickly alert staff in case someone elopes. An Aging Life Care Professional® can provide a thorough assessment of your loved one’s safety issues and needs, and help you determine the best alternatives.

President of Deborah Fins Associates, PC, since 1995, Deborah Liss Fins is a licensed independent clinical social worker and certified Aging Life Care® manager. Drawing on more than 30 years of professional experience in aging life care management, DFA offers comprehensive assessments and planning, guidance in selecting appropriate care, help identifying resources for financial support and professional consulting. Please contact us to set up a complimentary initial telephone consultation.

For more on coping with aging, follow us on Twitter: @DeborahFinsALCM.

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