When a person living with dementia is still able to run errands such as grocery shopping or manage their personal appointments independently, caregivers should encourage them to continue to do so. These activities, when safely carried out, can help persons living with dementia feel integrated into the community and increase physical and cognitive stimulations that can improve their overall well-being.
Adopting location-tracking technology is one way to empower persons living with dementia to continue to enjoy their routines and outdoor activities, while allowing their caregivers to be involved by keeping watch from a safe distance.
This article explores the use of location-tracking technology* in dementia caregiving, how it works, and some of the consideration factors caregivers should take note of when deciding on a tracking device for their loved ones living with dementia.
*Location-tracking technology allows caregivers to know where a person living with dementia is by showing them the location on a portable device.
Role of Location-tracking Devices in Dementia
As dementia progresses, memory impairment, confusion, and disorientation in a person living with dementia may become a serious concern for caregivers who worry that their loved ones may lose their way while navigating the community or places on their own. Wet weather and unsafe road conditions may also expose a person living with dementia to an increased risk of accidents, falls, and other injuries. The fear and anxiety for their loved one’s safety may lead caregivers to limit outdoor activities of their loved ones living with dementia1 and, inadvertently, the loss of independence and social interaction.
Whilst safety remains a top priority, it is also important that caregivers strike a balance between the need for safety and their loved ones’ need for autonomy and independence. One of the ways in which caregivers can achieve this is to include a location-tracking solution in their caregiving. This will enhance safety and traceability of their loved ones, and provide peace of mind for caregivers.
How Location-tracking Technology Can Help
1. Enabling Independence and Autonomy
Studies have shown that maintaining a person’s independence, freedom to participate in activities, and the autonomy to make choices for social interactions can contribute positively to improving one’s quality of life. 2 Location trackers can enable persons living with dementia to continue their daily outdoor routines, such as strolling, shopping or engaging in social activities with confidence, while providing caregivers with assurance that they can effectively locate their loved ones.
2. Peace of Mind for Caregivers
Location-tracking devices can provide caregivers with information on where their loved ones are at any point in time and help them quickly locate their loved ones in situations where they are lost or require assistance to go home. This can help caregivers to alleviate anxiety and constant worrying.
3. Joint Caregiving
Some location-tracking devices allow multiple caregivers or family members to access tracking information or receive location alerts and updates. This enables a more collaborative approach to care coordination, where family members can be involved in the caregiving process for their loved ones living with dementia.
4. Understanding Daily Routines
When a person living with dementia carries a location-tracking device, the device can store a record of commonly visited places. Such information offers caregivers valuable insights into understanding their loved one’s daily routines, frequently visited locations, as well as behavioural and travel patterns. This provides an in-depth understanding of your loved one’s individual needs, which can be used when tailoring a more effective and person-centred care plan.
Types of Tracking Device Technologies
Location-tracking device or location tracker, as the name suggests, provides real-time or near real-time updates on location information of the person living with dementia who carries it. A location tracker typically consists of a small personal device that is worn or carried by the person living with dementia. This device can send location updates to a designated app or web portal accessible by one or more caregivers via a mobile phone or the web. Depending on the type of technology, location updates may either be in real-time or delayed. These updates also normally include the current location, historical locations, and battery status.
There are different types of technologies used in location trackers that are suitable for persons living with dementia. The more common ones are:
Bluetooth Low Energy (B.L.E.): This leverages Radio Frequency (RF) and Bluetooth technology for wireless communication. It uses Bluetooth signals to interact with nearby devices, such as mobile phones, connected to the Internet to locate a transmitter.3 It covers much shorter distances of between 30-40 meters.4 Once outside this range, it may be difficult to gather precise location data. Such a tracker is typically lower in cost, lightweight, and does not require frequent charging.
Global Positioning System (GPS): GPS location tracker uses data from satellites, mobile phones, and Wi-Fi signal networks to determine the location of the GPS receiver. Such a tracker is suited for wider radius and outdoor positioning, but it is less effective in small, indoor spaces. GPS location tracker comes with a built-in GPS receiver that provides tracker’s position in real time; hence, it requires frequent charging. Devices with GPS function typically cost more and may require data SIM cards or monthly data subscription.
Additional Useful Features
Newer locations-tracking devices also come with new functionalities that can further enhance monitoring.
Geofencing feature allows caregivers to create virtual geographical boundaries or safe zones for their loved ones living with dementia. Instant alerts are sent to caregivers’ mobile phones when their loved ones venture outside these virtual boundaries, allowing caregivers to be more vigilant. For example, caregivers can set up alerts when their loved ones leave home at night.
Emergency Call Features
Some location trackers come with built-in telecommunication features, such as an emergency button that notifies caregivers when their loved ones living with dementia require urgent assistance. Such a feature on the location tracker can be useful for a person living with dementia to connect with family members and caregivers when using a mobile phone becomes a challenge.
Some models of location trackers have in-built motion sensors that trigger an automated alert to caregivers when it detects that the person living with dementia has fallen. This allows caregivers to attend to the person living with dementia immediately.
Caregiver Tips for Selecting Tracking Devices
Selecting the right location-tracking device that is effective and suited to your loved one’s preference is an important decision. There are various factors that caregivers can consider when selecting a device that ensures safety which is also suitable as dementia progresses.
We have listed some helpful tips and considerations to help caregivers to make the right choice.
1. Physical Activity Level
A good starting point is to consider the current physical activity level of your loved one with dementia: What does the daily routine look like? Their specific preferences such as time of day when going about certain activities or their preference for more outdoor or indoor activities. This gives you a sense of the kind of places your loved one frequents, as well as safety precautions to take note of.
For example, if your loved one prefers to go outdoors, selecting devices that offer more precise location tracking with a longer battery life, water resistant, and have more robust features such as fall detection can be considered.
2. Lifestyle Preferences
Caregivers can also consider how location-tracking devices can help their loved ones maintain their routines and interests for as long a period as possible. Understanding lifestyle preferences can also help caregivers determine if the devices should be carried or worn, how discreet these devices are, and whether incorporating alerts and prompts at appropriate times can help support their lifestyles.
Location-tracking devices come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Many of these devices are small, which can be placed on keyrings or wearable items, such as watches, jewelry and even shoes’ in-soles. Caregivers can choose from a range of designs based on preferences of their loved ones.
As dementia progresses, your loved one may gradually forget to use the tracking device. It is advisable for you to talk about these interventions early to give your loved one time to get used to using the device as part of the daily routine.
3. Upkeep & Maintenance
Just like a mobile phone, location-tracking devices need to be charged to be effective for outdoors use. GPS trackers typically require more frequent charging, which is an important factor to consider.
Check that the device is compatible with the caregiver’s smartphones and other portable devices. Some location-tracking solutions allow for more than one caregiver to view location information and receive alerts. It is, thus, helpful to select devices that can work across the various mobile operating platforms to maximise effectiveness.
5. Be Ready to Improvise
Caregivers can also consider using different solutions at different stages of dementia to ensure the technology can supplement the abilities of their loved ones.
For example, at the mild stage of dementia where persons living with dementia may still be able to manage their mobile phones, it is possible for the mobile phone to serve as a tracking device with installed maps such as Google Maps or OneMap that generally helps with wayfinding and can be improvised to help with remote monitoring. As dementia progresses, caregivers can then consider GPS-location trackers with other features such as fall detection and geofencing.
Read our article on 10 Ideas for Outdoor Monitoring to find out more about alternative solutions.
6. Contingency Planning
Caregivers and other family members should always discuss implementing an appropriate backup plan in cases where location-tracking devices fail to work or if the person living with dementia removes or misplaces the device. Technology is never 100% failproof and early planning for sources of support available to the caregiver would be a worthwhile exercise for the family to be able to intervene when situations escalate.
Helping persons living with dementia to maintain their sense of freedom, independence and autonomy is an essential part of caregiving. Caregivers may not always be available to accompany their loved ones as they go about their daily activities. Including location-tracking technology into caregiving toolkits can help caregivers balance the need for safety and their loved ones’ need for freedom.
It is advisable to have an open and honest discussion to understand how your loved one feels about introducing technologies. Caregivers should consult healthcare professionals to select a solution that is tailored to their loved one’s unique needs.
1. Agrawal, A. K., Gowda, M., Achary, U., Gowda, G. S., & Harbishettar, V. (2021). Approach to Management of wandering in Dementia: ethical and legal issue. Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, 43(5_suppl), S53–S59. https://doi.org/10.1177/02537176211030979
2. Wolfe, S. E., Greenhill, B., Butchard, S., & Day, J. (2020). The meaning of autonomy when living with dementia: A Q-method investigation. Dementia, 20(6), 1875–1890. https://doi.org/10.1177/1471301220973067
3. Howes, J., Denier, Y., & Gastmans, C. (2022). Electronic Tracking devices for people with dementia: Content analysis of company websites. JMIR Aging, 5(4), e38865. https://doi.org/10.2196/38865
6. Cefai, J.F. (2023). Use of Tracking Technology Among Persons Living with Dementia: Raises Significant Ethical Concerns About Privacy and Autonomy, https://timesofmalta.com/articles/view/use-tracking-technology-among-persons-living-dementia.1030874
8. Tech Able: https://techable.enablingvillage.sg