Elsa Pearson, MPH (@epearsonbusph), is a policy analyst with the Boston University School of Public Health. Melissa Garrido, PhD (@GarridoMelissa), is the associate director of the Partnered Evidence-based Policy Resource Center, Veterans Health Administration, and a research associate professor at the Boston University School of Public Health.
An elderly woman with dementia wandered away from her caregiver and into the crowd of thousands at a local fair. Locating her would have been near impossible if she hadn’t been wearing a tracking device. State and local police were able to follow the signal emitting from her bracelet and return her quickly – and unharmed – to her caregiver.
Though the ability of wearable devices or smart phones to track daily steps or calories burned is not new, wearable health technology has recently taken on additional capabilities, such as alerting users to life-threatening conditions or tracking individuals who are prone to wandering or falling. These tracking devices can, in turn, offer caregivers the reassurance that their loved ones are safe.
Health care often overlooks caregivers and most wearable health devices are tailored to a young, active clientele. But some companies are changing the narrative by marketing directly to older consumers and those who are prone to wandering because of dementia or autism. The caregivers of these individuals often shoulder their responsibilities alone, a heavy enough burden without the added worry of losing track of loved ones who wander off or being unaware they fell at home.
Individuals with dementia or autism are prone to wander, with studies showing over 40% of those with mild dementia and almost half of children with autism do so at some point. Tracking devices could reduce the time individuals spend lost and alone, mitigating the impact of such a common occurrence.
Some tracking devices can also detect when the wearer has fallen. That’s especially helpful for elderly patients who may be unable to get up. Extended time spent on the floor after a fall is associated with further complications, such as dehydration and pneumonia, and higher mortality.
SafetyNet Tracking Systems and other companies have had considerable success in aiding search and rescue operations. Ralph Poland, Field Operations Manager for SafetyNet and a retired police officer, notes there have been over 800 successful search and rescues using SafetyNet technology documented nationwide. “There’s no argument as to the efficiency gained and expenses saved by using tracking devices,” he says.
A recent search for a missing child in Massachusetts required the town’s police force to work overtime, activate canine units, and utilize a rescue helicopter, according to an officer involved. After thirty minutes, the child was found in his home. The search effort likely cost thousands of dollars. With a tracking device, the police would have known immediately the child was still in the house and minimal resources would have been required.
There are limitations, of course. Elderly individuals in particular may not use wearable health devices much at all, and they may not be familiar with the potential benefits. If they do wear them, they may not use them properly or consistently.
Caregivers may feel the technology is more complicated or burdensome than it is helpful, and that confusion could directly impact their loved one’s compliance. Tracking devices need to be simple, their tracking capabilities robust, and the complementary training and support adequate.
Tracking devices do cost money. There is often a charge for the product itself as well as a monthly service fee. For example, Angel Sense and SafetyNet both cost a few hundred dollars per year. Thankfully, many police departments and non-profit organizations recognize the potential benefits and cover the costs for families.
Caregivers graciously accept a thankless job with very little support. But tracking devices may be a simple way to alleviate the constant worry over their loved ones’ safety. Should a parent or child wander off or fall at home, caregivers can rest assured help is on the way.