Elderly in Scotland tagged to protect them from dementia

Tracking devices aimed at prolonging independence of sufferers. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Tracking devices aimed at prolonging independence of sufferers. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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PATIENTS with dementia have been fitted with electronic tags to stop them getting lost or into danger in a groundbreaking new experiment.

Seven elderly Scots are wearing or carrying the satellite tracking devices, which set off an alarm that will alert carers to their location if they travel beyond designated points. The “Safe Walking” scheme has been launched by a care firm in Edinburgh and is being monitored to see whether it is successful. If so, the tags could be issued to thousands of dementia patients across the country to enable them to live at home for longer and travel to activities on their own.

However, the move also raises civil liberties concerns because it imposes a restriction on patients’ movements and could potentially be done without their permission.

The scheme uses satellite technology in a similar way to electronic tags fitted to offenders serving community sentences. Charities working with the elderly welcomed the move but warned it must not be used excessively.

The new trial has been set up by elderly care provider Bield and Edinburgh City Council and is being monitored by researchers at Edinburgh University. The users are given a device that can be worn as a bracelet or carried in a handbag or pocket. It triggers an alarm to a call handling centre if they go out of a pre-determined geographic area. Families can even monitor the user’s movements on a smartphone or computer. Early reports from patients’ families suggest it has prevented them from having to go into care.

Dementia – of which Alzheimer’s is the most common form – affects around 75,000 Scots, but this number is projected to double by 2030 as more people are living longer. Most of those affected are over 65 and two-thirds are women.

Sharon Ewen, the project manager with Bield, said: “It’s our mission to give vulnerable people the highest possible quality of care without losing their valuable independence and, in particular, their desire to maintain an active lifestyle and to remain in their own homes. This extra layer of security should help reduce the stress associated with caring for someone with dementia.”

The monitoring system uses global positioning satellite technology to locate patients. The device is pre-programmed to create a safe wandering area, known as a “geo fence”, together with details of the user’s weekly routines, such as day care. If the user wanders out of the safe zone, an alert is issued via the system and their location is pinpointed to operators using Google maps. In most cases families are contacted straight away and told where to find the patient, to within a few streets.

One woman involved in the trial is 78-year-old Allie, a grandmother has been diagnosed with dementia. She would often get on the wrong bus or forget where she was going, once ending up in Dundee instead of Dalkeith. Now her daughter Carol can intercept her movements when she strays beyond her safe zone. Carol, 48, explained: “Mum could still get out and about but she would forget where she was going and she would get upset at herself. However we wanted her to keep her independence.”

Donny Lyons, chief executive of the Mental Welfare Commission, said: “We applaud the use of schemes like this in a way that increases the freedom and quality of life of patients. Our only concern is that it is done according to the principles of incapacity law. If the person themselves cannot consent, and if their families do not have power of attorney, the legal situation is not clear.

Kate Fearnley, deputy chief executive of Alzheimer Scotland, said: “We support the use of technology for people with dementia in their own homes, as long as it enhances their freedom, independence and quality of life and is used with the consent of those involved.”