New device tracks wandering residents

When caretakers discover a patient has dementia, it is often too late to treat it or manage its symptomatic wandering behavior.

William Kearns, professor of the Department of Aging and Mental Health, has developed a tracking system that may detect dementia early enough to properly manage it.

Designed for assisted living facilities, the system plots residents’ movement and can alert staff of abnormal patterns of movement, or wandering – an early sign of dementia.

“Wandering is a big problem with people who have dementia,” Kearns said. “It is estimated that 60 percent of people with dementia will wander at some point.”

Kearns’ system uses small, radio-frequency transponder bracelets and a grid of sensors to track residents’ movement throughout an assisted living facility. Each bracelet can pinpoint a resident within six inches of their actual location.

Rather than locate a lost resident in the outside environment, the system plots the subject’s movement over a period of time, Kearns said. A computer can then establish his or her normal movement pattern and alert staff to any abnormal wandering.

“What we are looking for is what we would call ‘random walk behaviors,'” Kearns said. Random walk behavior characterizes the early stages of dementia.

The tracking system began testing in March at the Shady Palms Retirement Homes, an assisted living facility on Florida Avenue. Seven volunteer residents are wearing the tracking bracelets during their normal daily activities.

Robert Bennett, the administrator of Shady Palms Retirement Homes, said the technology could be an effective tool for assisted living facilities.

“Technology really needs to be put in place for the elderly,” Bennett said. “It gives the staff the ability to react to (dementia-related behavior).”

Kearns said he hopes the system will eventually serve as an early warning system for the elderly. By examining unexplained variations in a resident’s movement, staff members could predict or even diagnose dementia at a very early stage. Early detection is important in degenerative diseases such as dementia, as medications slow, but do not stop, the condition.

“Many medications (for dementia) only really work early on,” Kearns said.

In the future, the system could have a multitude of applications, Kearns said. It could test the effects of different medications, evaluate staff interaction with patients, or protect a business from liability in the case of an accident.

While a tracking device might seem intrusive to most people, Kearns said that privacy is not an issue.

“It’s really a question of intent,” he said.

Residents in assisted living facilities already consent to almost constant staff supervision and video surveillance. The added supervision of the tracking system “might put residents’ minds at ease,” Kearns said.

The system needs about five more years of work before it is ready for commercial use, Kearns said. However, the project is already a welcome concept for local businesses.

“It would be very marketable,” Bennett said. “There is definitely a need for this product.”

USF holds the patent for the device and all funding and sponsorship of the research comes from the Johnnie B. Byrd, Sr. Alzheimer’s Center and Research Institute.