GPS to help dementia sufferers maintain independence

(Last Updated On: September 17, 2014)

Technology has a key role in enabling people to remain at home rather than being admitted to long term institutional care. Torbay and Southern Devon Health and Care NHS Trust is undertaking a twelve-month project to evaluate the effect that a GPS locator can have on the quality of life and safety for both a person living with dementia and their carer.

Dementia affects about 800,000 people in the UK. The risk of developing dementia increases as you get older, and the condition usually occurs in people over the age of 65.

‘Dementia’ describes a set of symptoms that may include memory loss and difficulties with thinking, problem-solving or language. Dementia is progressive, meaning the symptoms will gradually get worse.

As part of a £100,000 grant from the Prime Minister’s Dementia Challenge initiative, the Trust is offering 100 people a free GPS locator in a project aiming to prolong their independent living.

Project Manager, George Grute explained: “We already run a national call centre for the GPS locator service run by Ostrich Care. Now we’ve been awarded funding to evaluate the impact of providing GPS locators to dementia sufferers. We know that 60% of dementia sufferers are likely to wander off, and of those around 40% end up getting lost. That’s distressing for them and their families. Sadly, it sometimes even results in death. In 2012, five people in Devon with dementia died after wandering and getting lost.

“We know that giving their relative a GPS locator offers carers peace of mind, but we also want to understand the wider impact of this service. Does it result in fewer 999 calls, for example? Does it extend the time for which a dementia sufferer is able to live independently in the community? We’re planning to find all this out by signing up 100 dementia sufferers to receive a free GPS for 12 months.

“We’ll ask them and their carer a series of questions at the beginning, middle and end of the project. This feedback will help us to understand how effective the locator can be in improving the lives of those involved.  We will also record the number of times that someone goes missing and what part the locator played in returning them safely home, and we will report our findings back to ministers.”

Once someone is signed up to the project, they nominate agreed ‘responders’. These people can contact the 24/7 call centre if they become concerned about the dementia sufferer’s whereabouts.  There is also an ‘SOS’ button on the device that the wearer can activate if they are lost or distressed. At that point staff in the call centre can trace the GPS device signal and aim to reunite the lost individual with their carer.

The project has the backing of Devon and Cornwall police, who has been involved in establishing the response protocol for GPS wearers. If call centre staff decide a call needs to be escalated to the police, it is immediately categorised as an emergency.

Local MP and Chair of the government’s Health Select Committee, Dr Sarah Wollaston, also endorses the scheme, saying: “Becoming lost is a terrifying experience for a person living with dementia. It is also an immense worry for their families and friends as well as a frequent challenge for our emergency services. I fully support the offer of free location services for those who would like to try them for a year to see if this can help to support people coping with the challenge of memory loss.”

At the end of the twelve-month period, subscribers will be offered the opportunity to continue on the scheme for a fixed monthly payment, as set by Ostrich Care and currently £17.99 a month. The costs could be covered as part of an individual’s personalised care plan package.

The project is also supported by local dementia campaigner, Norman (‘Norrms’) McNamara, who was diagnosed with dementia seven years ago and describes himself as ‘still fighting it’. He was instrumental in creating Torquay as the first dementia friendly community in the UK and establishing dementia awareness day.  Norms said: “The Torbay Dementia Action Alliance is so proud to have been involved with this wonderful initiative since day one, and knowing it has become a national initiative is all the more pleasing. It has been brought about by working together, listening to each other and the most important thing of all, including those who actually have this disease of dementia in its production, design and roll out.”

15 people have already signed up to the project and received their free GPS locators. The scheme is open to people living in the local authority areas of Torbay, Devon and North Somerset.  Anyone interested in signing up to the scheme should contact Lauren Mallandaine, Dementia Challenge Project Officer, telephone 01803 321139 or email


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