Urgent Matters

A very urgent communication (with related video)

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Alzheimer's disease is a nasty, insidious malady that progressively worsens over time. There is no cure and it largely is unknown why some people get it while others do not. The disease robs its victims of their very essence by snatching away their memory. I have heard enough stories from close friends who have lost loved ones to Alzheimer's to know that I do not want this to happen to me — or to anyone else for that matter.

According to the Alzheimer's Foundation of America, about 60% of Alzheimer's victims will wander away from their care environments at some point, according to Eric Hall, the AFA's president and CEO.

"They feel that they need to go, because — in their mind, in their past history — it was a place where they went," Hall said. "So, they're on a mission. Wandering isn't preventable. There are some security measures that you can put into place, but the fact of the matter is that wandering probably is going to be a behavioral manifestation of Alzheimer's disease."

That's a big problem, as Alzheimer's patients generally are ill-equipped to function in the outside world — potentially a very dangerous place — and unable to find their way back home.

Given this, I was very excited recently to learn that the AFA had worked with a company called Breadcrumbs to develop a GPS-driven alert/locator device — the BC300 — designed specifically for use by Alzheimer's patients. The device doesn't have any flashing lights, as that would agitate them. Nor does it have an on/off switch, in order to prevent a patient from accidentally deactivating the device during a wandering episode. This is particularly important, because they might not realize that they have wandered, as Hall suggested.

Breadcrumbs even contemplated how the device would attach to the user's body, according to Hall. "They spent a lot of time on this," he said. "We needed something that couldn't be torn off by the individual. It only can be removed by a scissors. We wanted to make sure that it couldn't be removed using human strength."

The device also was designed to be small and lightweight — the less obtrusive it is, the less likely it will agitate the Alzheimer's patient who is wearing it, Hall added.

But the real key to the device is its GPS functionality. Up to five geo-fences can be created for each patient. When a patient breaches a boundary, an alarm will sound in a dedicated call center that is staffed 24/7 with specially trained personnel. The call center then will notify up to four caregivers — via any combination of text, e-mail or phone call — that a situation has occurred and provide the patient's location. The location data also can be provided to local public-safety agencies that may assist in a search. The idea is to nip a wandering episode in the bud before a tragedy occurs.

Of course, GPS has its limitations because it is a line-of-sight technology that doesn't penetrate obstructions well. So, the BC300 theoretically would be less effective in areas dotted with skyscrapers or mountains. However, the device's designers took that into account and devised a solution, said Breadcrumbs CEO Sam Mancuso.

"We tested the device for more than a year all over the U.S., working with the Alzheimer's Foundation, and we did have some cases where signals bounced off buildings or canyons," Mancuso said. "GPS is great when you have clear line of sight to the satellite — it's accurate down to nine feet. But if you get any obstruction of that view, you might not get an accurate signal.

"So what we did was create some 'smoothing' algorithms for our software, so when signals come in that we absolutely know are erroneous, we throw them out of our database. For instance, let's say you're in New York and the data shows — because the signal is bouncing off buildings — that a patient is in the Atlantic Ocean. We know that's not possible, because the patient couldn't have covered that much ground that fast, and so we're going to take another reading. The software rationalizes all of that — that's part of the secret sauce in our location engine."

In our February cover story, Senior Writer Donny Jackson examines the major policy issues surrounding the battle between LightSquared and the GPS community, the latter of which is very concerned that the former's proposed operations could severely interfere with GPS operations. While I would like to see increased competition in the commercial wireless space — which LightSquared has promised should it be allowed to operate — I need to see GPS protected.

No one really knows for sure what GPS operations will be affected should LightSquared be given the green light. But here's what I do know: It would be one thing to wander aimlessly in search of a restaurant should the navigation application on my smartphone fail, and quite another if I were to develop Alzheimer's and my alert/locator device fail because the GPS wasn't working. The FCC and the NTIA need to get this right.

What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.

Discuss this Blog Entry 1

Sylvia (not verified)
on Oct 13, 2012

As a caregiver with a spouse that packs whatever and takes it outside to the car or just sits it in the driveway. This is how his mother started until the night she had to go home and left the house;.fell into a ditch and broke her leg. Laid in the ditch until someone spotted her and called for help. She died a couple days later. Alzheimer's is a horrible illness to leave for your children but it does run in families. Keep up the good work as I had been trying to get the dentist to put a gps in his tooth.

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Donny Jackson is editor of Urgent Communications magazine. Before joining UC in 2002, he covered telecommunications for four years as a freelance writer and as news editor for Telephony magazine....
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