Ethical questions arise over proposals to electronically track the elderly

Wednesday, March 26, 2014 by: J. D. Heyes
Tags: electronic tracking, dementia patients, privacy

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(NaturalNews) New technology designed to help caregivers keep track of confused elderly patients is being welcomed by a number of healthcare advocacy groups, but it's not being widely accepted among others who say electronic tracking is one privacy invasion step too far.

As reported by CNBC, one of the latest devices was developed by Marc Regimbal, a software designer who initially created an app for parents to keep track of their children after losing his own three-year-old for 20 minutes once -- what he called the "hairiest experience" of his life.

Regimbal's child tracker -- not so ironically called "ChildTrac" -- works like this: It is a device that attaches to a child's clothing or backpack which allows parents to locate them using their smartphones.

Just a year after its launch, however, he said people began asking about using it for the elderly.

"People started asking about using the tracker on elders - especially people with Alzheimer's and dementia," he told the network.

Market for such devices is nonetheless growing

Worldwide, there are an estimated 44.4 million people with dementia, according to Alzheimer's Disease International. The figure is expected to rise to about 75.6 million in 2030, the group says. By 2050, some 135.5 million are expected to be afflicted, barring any treatment or cure.

It is a condition that often causes sufferers to become lost, even if they are in familiar surroundings; the use of GPS technology, as in ChildTrac, can be applied to devices that can be attached to those with dementia as well, goes the thinking.

"When it comes to locating elderly people, it's a fairly small market today and there are opportunities for significant growth going forward," said Andre Malm, a senior analyst at telecom industry analysts Berg Insight, in an interview with CNBC. He noted that tracking those with dementia was different than tracking kids, when a mobile phone with a tracking app would most often do.

"People with dementia might forget the phone - or in the case of an emergency might not be able to use it," said Malm said. "So you really need a dedicated device - a wristwatch or a pendant - so you can make sure the person actually has it on them."

To solve that problem, the director of KMS Solutions, Louis-James Davis, created the KMS Wristband. If the only button on the device is pressed by whomever is wearing it, then it automatically dials a designated phone number of a caregiver who can speak to the wearer while tracking them.

"If someone with dementia says they are going to the shop, you can't always trust that they'll get there," Davis told CNBC. "This means that if they go off-route you check they're ok."

The developer said tracking of vulnerable adults was a "key market" for the company, which launched only in January. "I took the communication technologies that were already out there in homebound assisted living and put it onto the wrist," he said.

In the United Kingdom, several local councils already provide tracking devices for dementia patients. The device is called Mindme Locate, and it is very popular with local authorities. Mindme has given some 400 devices to councils all over the country and has reported a growing demand for them.

Some disagree

In April 2013, meanwhile, police in Sussex said the department had bought GPS tracking devices in the hopes of saving some money that would otherwise be spent searching for missing dementia patients.

"The GPS will be very cost-effective to the police... It will reduce anxiety for the family and really reduce the police time spent on this issue," said Tanya Jones, who was chief inspector at the time, last year.

However, not everyone believes that the technology is necessary or mindful of privacy.

As reported by CNBC:

Neil Duncan-Jordon, national officer at the U.K.-based campaign group the National Pensioners' Convention, expressed reservations about the use of the technology, arguing that it can't replace human care.

"Sometimes the only person an elderly person sees is the person who comes in to check on them - if that's going to be replaced by new technology, what happens to that elements of personal contact?" he told the network.

"And GPS trackers don't actually provide better care. It might help you find people - and quicker - but it doesn't stop them going outside, and potentially falling over. It's quite a grey area."

Though such devices may not sound appealing to some, it is important to note that, if you're carrying a cellphone, you're being tracked. Some people who purchase cell phones under other identities or who use "pay-as-you-go" services are still being tracked, even if the tracking system can't identify you personally.

Cars, too. Most new cars come equipped with GPS systems, which of course can be tracked.


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