High-tech tracking puts Alzheimer’s families at ease

The system sends alerts is the patient wanders too far.
By Lauran Neergaard
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON>> Tom Dougherty jokes that he takes “get-lost walks.” To his wife, Cleo, it’s a constant fear: When will his Alzheimer’s get bad enough that she has to end his 4-mile daily strolls? The Irvine, Calif. woman is about to watch her husband’s neighborhood meandering via computer while she works.

The Alzheimer’s Association is adapting technology developed for monitoring prisoners to let caregivers track where their loved ones drive or walk – and alert them if they go beyond the virtual fences each family can set.

“You’re trying to help them maintain their dignity and independences,” says Cleo Dougherty, who pilot-tested the service with her 67-year-old husband last summer and is awaiting arrival of the official version, which began shipping transmitters last week.

More than 5 million Americans are estimated to be living with Alzheimer’s, as many as half in the disease’s early stages.

Increasingly early diagnosis means many patients still have years of independent living ahead of them before they have to give up the car and eventually give up going out alone at all.

At some point, nearly 60 percent of Alzheimer’s patients will begin what’s called wandering, requiring more intense supervision to keep them safe.

A growing number of states are adopting “Silver Alerts” programs that notify the public when an Alzheimer’s patient or other cognitively impaired adult wanders off, modeled on the Amber Alerts for missing children.

Other families opt for higher-tech options – from simple radio-wave beacons to more sophisticated GPS technology – developed for search and rescue that allow tracking a transmitter signal if the person carrying the device is missing.

“That works great when they’re lost, but until they’re lost it isn’t really helping families manage location,” says the Alzheimer’s Association’s Beth Kallmyer.

So the associations’ new Comfort Zone program goes a step further, with a Web-based mapping service that works with multiple brands of tracking transmitters. First out are a pocket-size transmitter and a car version, while a harder-to-remove wristwatch style and one secreted in shoes are being explored.

Families can check where Dad is at any given time or, in an emergency, track his movements every 2 minutes while someone heads him off.

Or families might set day and nighttime perimeters for Aunt Sue. Cross the zone, and e-mail or text message alerts the caregivers. That might mean a call to her cell-phone to see if she needs directions – or it might just be useful information in judging how well she gets around on her own.

How it works: The Alzheimer’s Association hired Omnilink Services, best known for prisoner monitoring, to run the Web mapping with various types of technology. Different manufacturers’ transmitters are certified as compatible. Families buy a transmitter for about $200 then choose a monthly monitoring plan that can range from $43 to $80.

That’s far cheaper, says Cleo Dougherty, than the Alzheimer’s day program she’ll have to enroll her husband in once he cant’ walk alone.

The technology is not a replacement for in-person supervision, cautioned Nina Silverstein, a gerontology professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

But pilot-testing Comfort Zone gave Karen Zimmerman’s husband peace of mind. The Alexandria, VA. woman was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at the unusually young age of 51 and nearly two years later still drives on her own every day for volunteer work and to shop.

Independence is “the most important thing to me right now; it really is. If I had to sit here at the house all day, I don’t know what I would do,” says Zimmerman.