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Technology April 2012

Smart Seniors with Smart Devices

By Tara Lynne Groth

Now GPS tracking devices and special applications for phones and electronic tablets help the elderly retain their dignity and freedom.

Tracy Van Ness, a physician assistant at Stony Brook University Hospital in Stony Brook, N.Y., whose grandfather suffered from Alzheimer's, had a frightening experience when she went to visit him one weekend. Like anyone, Van Ness' grandfather wanted his independence. He lived on his own, but had an aide assisting him on weekdays. When Van Ness arrived on a cold and rainy Saturday morning, her grandfather wasn't home, his stove was on and the front door was wide open. Her family had no idea how long he had been missing.

For half the day, police searched and eventually found Van Ness' grandfather 40 miles away. Her family was one of the lucky ones. According to Chris McCaffrey, regional manager of the greater Albuquerque area Alzheimer's Association, six out of ten people who are diagnosed with Alzheimer's will experience wandering. Of those wandering seniors, more than half will die within 24 hours if they are not found.

Families are caring for aging family members or finding alternative assisted care now more than ever before. If an elderly loved one wanders away, how can families find them? Today, GPS tracking devices and special applications for phones and electronic tablets can help the elderly retain their dignity and freedom.

"Through the Alzheimer's Association we have a program called Comfort Zone," says McCaffrey. "It's a GPS technology that allows families to log in to a secure site and track their loved one." The system employs a geofencing feature, which automatically alerts users if the tracking unit leaves a digitally-defined area. For peace of mind, families need to budget a $300 setup fee and monthly costs of approximately $80 dollars.

Long Island-based special education teacher, Melissa Leahy, had a grandmother who loved to walk. As her grandmother's Alzheimer's progressed, simple walks became wanders. "She was spotted by a neighbor who called a cop car over and they returned her home," Leahy says. Her family invested in special locks that prevented her grandmother from leaving the home. They also spent $100 per day on a home aide.

Costs skyrocket to thousands per month when it becomes necessary for a senior to move into an assisted living center or nursing home. For people beginning to show signs of dementia and early onset Alzheimer's, the new technology may help them retain independence longer and save money on long-term care costs.

Some dementia sufferers may still remember where they live and where they parked their car after grocery shopping, but forget to take their medication – which can have life-threatening consequences. A new $299 electronic tablet called Memo was created by a team of gerontologists to reduce the stress of short-term memory loss. The simple display shows what medications need to be taken and when, and if users don't tap the basic icons to confirm the prescriptions were taken, caregivers are immediately alerted. Service starts at about $29 per month.

For families with long distances between them and their aging loved one, both the prescription service and the GPS tracking help them stay engaged with their family member's healthcare. Daniela Fox, a financial services officer based out of Apex, N.C., would have liked the GPS technology years ago when her father experienced memory loss episodes at his home in Germany. "My father would walk every day for three hours; the village where he lived knew him for decades," Fox says. His notoriety in the small town helped reunite him with his family when he started to forget his way home. "We always thought it would be nice to have shoes that would track him."

Today families can track their loved ones with GPS shoes created by GTX Corp. The shoes range from $200-$300 and come in a variety of styles with a small GPS tracking device concealed in the heel. Similar to the Comfort Zone program offered by the Alzheimer's Association, the GPS shoes offer geofencing and real-time alerts if a loved one begins to wander.

These new senior-savvy devices are helping families and adult children care for their aging parents. They extend independence longer and ensure medications are taken, saving families money on long-term care and medical costs.

From his years working for the Alzheimer's Association, McCaffrey says a lot of elder care facilities have wandering paths designed especially for seniors with memory loss. The paths allow residents to wander freely, but they will always end up in the same place and caregivers know exactly where they are. It brings peace of mind and freedom, which have no price, but at least families are able to stay digitally connected and know exactly where their loved ones are even if they can't be with them.