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The University of Southampton
Health Sciences

Using GPS to help people with dementia

Walking outdoors and getting out and about is a common and valued activity for people with dementia. However, dementia can affect a person’s way-finding abilities and so leaving the house to walk outside is not without its risks for individuals with this condition.

Of the half a million people in the UK with dementia who live in their own homes, over 40 per cent of them will get lost at some point, and about 25,000 will get lost repeatedly, doubling their risk of admission to expensive long term care.

Police forces, local authorities, and NHS Trusts have started to issue GPS devices to individuals and families affected by dementia. The use of such devices can provide peace of mind, but it is controversial and divides opinion, particularly amongst health and social care professionals.

The University of Southampton has been awarded funding of over £188,000 from the Alzheimer’s Society for a unique research project into the effectiveness and acceptability of using different Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) technologies to help people with dementia walk safely outside. It will look at the use of standalone devices (e.g. a bracelet) and integrated GPS devices (e.g. smartphones) and seek to identify and overcome the barriers to using GPS effectively.

This new Southampton project, overseen by Health Sciences’ Dr Ruth Bartlett, will examine the use of GPS devices from the standpoint of people with dementia and their families, and the police, who will all be involved in the project every step of the way.

Rather than taking a medical approach, the topic of using with dementia will be explored from a rights perspective.

Dr Bartlett explains: “Dementia is a disability and people with dementia have a right to expect effective measures to be taken to facilitate their personal mobility and social inclusion.

“Our plan is to co-produce guidance with key stakeholders for people to use when issuing and/or using GPS technologies with people with dementia. No such guidance presently exists. The guidance would draw on previous research, as well as findings from this project, and cover thorny issues such as capacity to consent and the cost of technologies. We believe our project will make a valuable and unique contribution to area and help to improve community support and assist families to provide care for longer.”

Dr Bartlett’s project will encompass two phases. The first will involve talking to different groups of people about their experiences of using or issuing GPS technologies to people with dementia.

The second phase aims to find out more about peoples’ actual experience of using GPS technologies, by walking with individuals (who use them) and talking to them while they are walking and actually using such devices.

The practical guidance Ruth and her team aim to produce will empower people with dementia and their families to engage in positive risk-taking. It will also help to de-stigmatise the use of GPS by people with dementia, and increase the confidence of people to make decisions about using such technologies to promote safer walking and a more independent lifestyle in general.

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