SALT LAKE CITY – A northern Utah sheriff's office is floating a unique and unproven idea for keeping seniors with Alzheimer's disease and dementia safe: Give them ankle monitors normally used on criminals on house arrest or parole.
There are no shortage of private health care companies and law enforcement agencies around the country that offer tracking devices such as bracelets, necklaces or pocket-size locators that allow families to find loved ones who suffer from dementia and wander off.
But the Davis County sheriff's proposal to strap seniors with the bulky ankle monitors -- which most people associate with criminals on parole -- appears to be a new one.
Deputy Sheriff Kevin Fielding said the agency announced the idea in a news release Tuesday so it could gauge public interest. Sheriff's officials know many options exist for families trying to keep their grandparents safe, but the agency already has the monitors and technology available through a private company it contract with for its inmates.
"If grandma wanders off, we could find exactly where she is," Fielding said. "If we could bring a search to a close in 30 minutes in a winter like we had this year, that'd be a whole lot better than eight hours."
Fielding said the ankle monitors also could be used for autistic children, or anyone at risk of wandering off.
The monitors would be voluntary and offered to residents for about $4 a day, or $120 a month. Police would monitor the person's movement only when the family contacts them.
The county would make no money off the program, but it could cut costs by avoiding having to deploy numerous officers for long stretches to find people, Fielding said. Searches can require dozens of officers and the use of ATVs, snowmobiles and other equipment, and they easily cost tens of thousands of dollars.
The idea would have to be approved by county commissioners. So far, nobody has expressed interest other than members of the media, Fielding said.
Officials with the Alzheimer's Association applauded the law enforcement agency for working to keep people with dementia and Alzheimer's safe. Realistically, however, ankle monitors are not a viable solution, said Beth Kallmyer, the group's national vice president of constituent services.
The association has discovered that seniors don't even want to wear location devices that look like bracelets or necklaces because they don't want to be singled out, she said. She's highly doubtful anybody is going to want to put on an ankle monitor.
"These are people that have a disease -- they are not a criminals," Kallmyer said. "We want to make sure we are protecting their dignity."
Jack Jenks, executive director of the Alzheimer's Association's Utah chapter, said that six in 10 people with Alzheimer's wander off at some point in their lifetime. There are 32,000 people in Utah with Alzheimer's and 10,000 more with other forms of dementia.
"It's marvelous that different agencies are addressing this problem," Jenks said. "Up until now, the Alzheimer's Association has been like a voice in the wilderness with these wandering issues."
The advantage of using the ankle monitors would be that they are much more difficult to remove than bracelets and necklaces. A major disadvantage would be the discomfort.
"Any change in routine or dress is very agitating to them," said Jenks of people with Alzheimer's.
The cost also is a drawback, Jenks said.
"I think it is admirable that the sheriff's department is doing this, but there may be some other options that are less costly," he said.
The Alzheimer's Association sells a device and system that costs $10 to $60 a month and alerts families when somebody leaves a designated zone. The person with Alzheimer's or dementia carries either a pager-sized tracking device in their pocket or a phone, or has a device installed in their car.
Another program called Project Lifesaver is used by about 1,250 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and Canada. Participants receive a plastic bracelet equipped with a waterproof radio transmitter that officers can use when alerted to quickly locate a person.
In Washington County, Ore., the sheriff's office has 50 participants -- split evenly between children with Down syndrome or autism and seniors with Alzheimer's or dementia, said Marcia Langer, the department's senior program educator. The agency asks participants to pay a onetime fee of $300, the cost of each bracelet. The devices greatly reduce search times, but caregivers must provide upkeep, including changing the battery every 30 days.
The unfortunate reality, Kallmyer says, is that the perfect locator device doesn't yet exist for seniors with Alzheimer's disease and dementia.
"The biggest problem is finding something they want to wear and doesn't single them out and doesn't create stigma," Kallmyer said.