Should tracking devices be part of dementia care?

Tracking devices may be a great way to keep a loved one with dementia safe, but they can also raise legal and ethical issues. We look at both sides of the argument...

In a nutshell

Losing a loved one who leaves the house when you aren’t looking or when you’re out and about, is one of the worst moments in caring for someone with dementia, and there are many horror stories in the press about what can happen. A tracking device, sometimes called a locator device or safer walking technology, is one of the latest GPS gadgets which can be used to monitor your loved one’s whereabouts, and could help you locate them if they walk away.

But does that mean it’s morally ‘right’ to use them? Here are the pros and cons of tracking devices so you – and the person you’re caring for – can make up your own minds.

Pros

Greater independence
If they’re wearing a tracking device, it may be possible for a person with dementia to go out independently, knowing that if they get lost or feel unwell, a loved one will be able to assist them. It also means the carer can avoid adding locks to doors and windows to their loved one 'escaping' into danger.

Increased confidence
A dementia diagnosis can shatter self-confidence. Whilst some people still insist on going out, others become too afraid to leave home on their own – a locator device could offer an invaluable boost to self-esteem.

Peace of mind for both of you
If you can run a bath without having to worry that the person you’re caring for might go missing, it’s bound to make you feel less anxious, and it could also improve your relationship with your loved one. It’s also worth considering that people in the early stages of dementia can be aware that their loved ones are worrying about them when they go out, and may therefore be happy to wear a GPS tracking device as a way of offering them reassurance.

Allows normal life to continue
Most people with dementia want to stay in their own home for as long as possible and tracking devices can play an important role in making that happen.

Lots of choice and variety
There’s a big range in price – you might find trackers are cheaper than you think – and a wide range of ways to use them, you can attach them to key rings or even have one put in a shoe!

Cons

Loss of privacy
Some people believe tracking devices go against important principles of freedom and civil liberty. Does anyone, they argue, have the right to take away another person’s freedom to go where they please, when they please, simply because they have dementia?

Stigma and loss of dignity
It could be argued that tracking devices are the same as the ‘tags’ we use on dogs and criminals. This same argument might also apply to the tracking technology widely available for children.

They’re dehumanising
The challenges of the dementia journey are human and critics say they should be solved by human beings, not by technology.

They could lead to reduced quality of care
If tracking devices become an essential, everyday part of the care package, some people fear they could lead to a reduction in staff supervision in care homes, and a more lax approach to dementia care in general.

Three common questions

1. Should I ask permission before using a tracking device?

Yes, you should ask the person with dementia if they agree to you using this kind of device. Make sure you explain carefully what the tracking device is, and why you think it could be a good idea. If they have concerns, talk about them and be willing to repeat the conversation as many times as necessary.

Tip: If they were recently diagnosed and a tracking device isn’t necessary – yet –it’s worth having a conversation about them anyway and asking their views. If they’re happy for a device to be used at some point in the future, you could consider having this included in an advanced decision so that everyone is clear about it and to avoid ethical worries when the time comes to need one

2. What if they agree, but then change their mind?

This can be tricky but it’s worth reminding them what the tracking device is for and why it could give them more freedom and independence.

3. What if they can’t decide for themselves?

Are you sure about that? Take a look at The Mental Capacity Act 2005 before making any judgement one way or another.

If you’re still sure they can’t decide for themselves, and you have Power of Attorney, it’s your duty to act in their best interest. If you feel a tracking device is necessary and genuinely in their best interests, it could be the right thing to do.

If you don’t have Power of Attorney and no advanced decision has been made, then the decision about using a tracking device should rest with the person who does have Power of Attorney, although it’s usually best if the whole family can come to a decision together, preferably one which feels right for everyone – and which respects what you all believe your loved one would want.