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Groups mull use of GPS to help with Alzheimer's

One day this month, just before the first snowstorm of the season, 73-year-old Maria del Carmen Serrano wandered away from her Montreal apartment and walked nearly five kilometres across town. She never came home.

It was the third time the woman, who had Alzheimer's disease, had strayed, but this outing was fatal. Ms. Serrano was found three days later in the snow, dead from exposure.

Her death has sparked a discussion about whether a GPS bracelet that uses tracking technology might have saved her life.

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Montreal police, who mobilized dozens of officers to hunt for Ms. Serrano, say they are studying the idea of providing such devices to those with Alzheimer's and others at risk.

And Ms. Serrano's son, Jesus, said he believes a bracelet with a global positioning system would have kept his mother alive.

"You can have a GPS in your car. How come I can't buy one for my mum?" he asked CTV News Wednesday. "That's the most important thing we have. A car doesn't matter."

The use of GPS technology to track adults with Alzheimer's or other cognitively impairing illnesses is growing in popularity.

The locating device uses a transmitter signal to follow a person's movements and location.

In September, an Alberta inquiry into the freezing death of an 88-year-old man urged health-care officials to consider GPS wrist or ankle devices to track elderly people with dementia. The man wandered from his retirement home in the middle of the night.

But privacy concerns have been raised, and Alzheimer's groups caution against seeing GPS systems as a panacea. Such devices are already being marketed in Canada.

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"It can give a false sense of security," said Sylvie Grenier, director-general of the Alzheimer Society of Montreal. "A bracelet with a GPS device will never replace the vigilance of a family."

The Alzheimer Society of Canada has its own program, Safely Home, in which users wear a non-electronic bracelet with an identification number that is registered with police forces across the country. It has 32,000 users in Canada.

The organization says families need to take a broad approach to dealing with Alzheimer's patients, trying to balance their independence with safety concerns.

It says those with Alzheimer's have a 50-per-cent risk of death or injury if not found within 12 hours of disappearing.

Some U.S. states, meanwhile, have adopted Silver Alerts programs, modelled on Amber Alerts for children, in which media outlets publicize descriptions of missing people as well as police contact information.

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About the Author

Ingrid Peritz has been a Montreal-based correspondent for The Globe and Mail since 1998. Her reporting on the plight of Canadians suffering from the damaging effects of the drug thalidomide helped victims obtain federal compensation and earned The Globe and Mail a National Newspaper Award, Canadian Journalism Foundation award, and the Michener Award for public service. More

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