Health Column: Technology to help keep loved ones safe

05/04/2014 8:30 AM |

Comfort Zone GPS

About a month ago, 82-year-old Jean Taber of Riverside decided to go out for a walk with her dog Freckles — but Ms. Taber, who had been suffering from short-term memory loss, became disoriented and unable to find her way home.

It took more than two days — plus 250 volunteers and the help of a helicopter — to find her body in a wooded area.

But imagine if Ms. Taber had been wearing a GPS locator, a device designed specifically for seniors and those with cognitive impairments and at risk of wandering. With the touch of a button, her family might have been able to locate her within seconds of realizing that she’d left her home.

The availability of such technology is growing, with even more advanced options expected to become available in the coming year, according to news reports.

“It just makes perfect sense,” said Dr. Dennis Choi, chair of the department of neurology and director of the Neurosciences Institute at Stony Brook University School of Medicine. “One of the nice futures of medicine is the ability to use technology to allow us all to manage disease [progression] and age more gracefully.”

Comfort Zone, the brand recommended by the nonprofit Alzheimer’s Association, is one of many systems currently on the market. A pager, a watch-like device and even a car mount are currently available to help track loved ones’ whereabouts.

As the person moves about, the device receives signals from satellites or nearby cell towers — detecting the person’s location by the distance between the device and the towers or satellite signals.

Caregivers can access the location information online or by calling the manufacturer’s monitoring center.

Such systems do involve with a monthly service charge, in this case anywhere from $10 to $50 depending on the frequency of information requested.

But, it should be noted, this type of device is helpful only if a person remembers to wear it. And that could prove a challenge, especially for those with cognitive difficulties.

It is estimated that six in 10 people with dementia will wander, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

Si g n s t h a t s o m e o n e may be apt to wander include returning from a regular walk or drive later than usual, trying to fulfill past obligations, like going to work; asking to “go home,” even when already at home; or pursuing a hobby or chore, but getting nothing accomplished (moving around pots or dirt without actually planting anything, for example), according to the association.

Robert Syron, president and CEO of Peconic Landing, an assisted living facility in Greenport, said he recommends that caregivers put a safety plan in place, as care facilities do, to ensure loved ones are accounted for — especially when they are left alone for extended periods.

“When people have decline of any kind, cognitive or in motor skills, any technology they can utilize to maintain their independence and keep them safe is a win,” Mr. Syron said.

To find out more about the risk factors of wandering and Comfort Zone visit www.alz.org.

Carrie Miller

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Carrie Miller at cmiller@timesreview.com .