Dementia and GPS tracking

You may have read the story in the Telegraph reporting how police in Sussex are fitting GPS tracking devices to people with dementia in order to save costs on expensive call-outs to find those people who, disorientated by their surroundings, have become lost. As you can imagine, this move has been met with much criticism, with opponents labelling it inhumane and a violation of certain basic civil liberties. It’s clear that this is a complex issue that raises certain inescapable moral and ethical questions.

If you ask someone, anyone, to free-associate on the topic of GPS tracking devices, their responses will generally touch on one of two things: newly released prisoners with unwieldy electronic tags strapped to their legs or wildlife documentaries where elephants or tigers have been fitted with a device so that they can be tracked by scientists. In other words, the connotations of these devices are not of a hugely positive or compassionate nature.

But these negative associations are not necessarily helpful when thinking about the issue of people with dementia being fitted with GPS devices. It’s something that demands rational consideration, and the ethical implications need to be met head on, with prejudices cast aside. One must also bear in the mind the danger of real care being eclipsed by cost-saving technology.

The central ethical issue concerning the use of GPS for people with dementia is when it is used in people who lack the mental capacity to consent to it. It may not be a reflection of their prior wishes and beliefs and it may not always be in their best interests, not least if it is used as a cheap substitute for proper care and support. However, some people in the early stages of dementia may express a wish to use GPS in this way if or when they become confused and disorientated in the future. It may provide them (together with their family and friends) with peace of mind and actually give them a greater sense of freedom, knowing that if they do get lost they will be able to get help. Rather than a draconian way of keeping tabs on people with dementia, this could actually give those with dementia greater independence to live their lives the way they want. Most importantly, people with dementia should be given the choice, and this choice should be respected.

Here at the Mental Health Foundation we strongly believe in the concept of ‘dementia friendly communities’ whereby people, services and organisations in a community have the necessary awareness and knowledge to support (and if necessary protect) people with dementia. GPS, if it does start to be in widespread use, should therefore only be one component in the properly resourced care and support of people with dementia. It cannot simply be a replacement.

Ultimately, we need to listen to the views of people with dementia and their families. In particular, to look at how GPS is viewed by people in the early stages of dementia as something they might benefit from as the condition progresses, how they compare it with other types of care and support, and how it might fit with other forms of care and support.

This debate needs to be evidence-based, reasonable, and with the emphasis on the affect GPS tracking could have on the care of people with dementia and their families. To view it as a substitute for good care and support, or simply as cost-cutting exercise is, to put it bluntly, missing the point completely.