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Keeping Track of the Most Vulnerable

Melba Newsome
March 24, 2017

How to help those who may get lost or wander off due to conditions like Alzheimer's.



The frantic 911 call came in to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Department at 12:40 AM. Sandy Watkins had awakened to find her husband Paul, a 69-year-old Alzheimer's sufferer, missing from their Palm Harbor home. Less than an hour later, sheriff's lieutenant Kevin Bennett had located Watkins at a bus stop a few miles away in the town of Clearwater.

Thanks to a wristband Watkins was wearing, a search that could have ended in disaster or taken days and cost tens of thousands of dollars was resolved promptly and with little manpower. Watkins is registered with the Project Lifesaver program, and wears a transmitter bracelet which emits a signal that can be picked up by a locating device. It was the third such rescue since the Pinellas County Sheriff's department began using Project Lifesaver in 2009. Nationwide, more than 2300 people have been located since the service was implemented 12 years ago.

Caregivers and family members realize that wandering off or getting lost is a problem for people with Alzheimer's, autism, Down syndrome, dementia and other related cognitive conditions. According to the Alzheimer's Association, more than 60 percent of those with dementia will wander at some point. This is the problem Project Lifesaver founder and CEO Gene Saunders set out to address when he helped establish the non-profit in Chesapeake, Virginia in 1999.

"We wanted to identify Alzheimer's and dementia patients who may wander off and become lost," says Saunders. "After we got started, we got calls from all around the country wanting to start the program. In 2001, I retired and took it on full-time. The system is now in 1175 agencies in 45 states, three provinces in Canada, and one government agency in Australia."

Project Lifesaver is set up through law enforcement, fire departments, search and rescue agencies, VA hospitals and some private care facilities, all of which are trained to use the equipment. Citizens enrolled in Project Lifesaver wear a small personal transmitter around the wrist or ankle that emits an individualized tracking signal. If an enrolled client goes missing, the caregiver notifies their local Project Lifesaver agency and a trained emergency team responds to the wanderer's area. The technology works via a radio transmitter instead of GPS which Saunders says is more reliable because the signal can not be blocked.

"It cuts down on time, manpower and money," says Saunders. "A normal Alzheimer's search has been set at about nine hours at $1500 per hour. Victims are usually missing less than 30 minutes with Project Lifesaver and the search uses 1 to 2 people instead of dozens. It also helps the agency build rapport with the community."

The cost is established by each individual agency. However, it can be no more than $25 per month and must be made available to those who can not afford it. In Pinellas County, the initial cost is $300, which includes twelve mandatory monthly battery replacements. After the first year, the annual maintenance fee is $70.

There are other products on the market as well. Two years ago, the Alzheimer's Association introduced Comfort Zone, a Web-based tracking system that works with various mobile devices. The software uses GPS and cellular technologies with online mapping to track Alzheimer's sufferers who stray outside a pre-set zone. Caregivers can track their whereabouts by accessing information using the Internet or calling the monitoring center. Plans start at $42.99 per month plus a $45 activation fee.

This technology can give families an extra level of security and a little peace of mind. The Pinellas County Sherriff's department spokesperson Cecilia Barreda says, "For families who have relatives who tend to wander from home, we want them to know that Project Lifesaver is a good option. As the name says, it really can be a lifesaver."

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