Radio frequency technology helps locate missing elderly


By Brian Goslow

It was the scenario that many older couples fear.

Marshfield resident Vinny DiNatale, 82, and suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, had wandered away from his home and was nowhere to be found.

His wife called the Marshfield Police, told them of the disappearance and notified them that he was enrolled in the SafetyNet by LoJack radio tracking device program. Thirty minutes later, the SafetyNet by LoJack signal was picked up a half mile from the DiNatale house.

Police found the elderly man tangled up in a hard-to-see marsh area. With high tide imminent, the fast action may have saved his life.

The rescue is one of many similar stories shared by the company, already well known for tracking stolen vehicles, construction equipment and more recently, computer laptops. LoJack purchased Locator Systems, a British Columbia, Canada-based company that manufactured radio frequency tracking equipment for wildlife and people-at-risk, in 2008.

“The theory was, if this technology works so well finding bears and elk out in the wilderness where there’s really no electricity or technology, why can’t we use this same technology to look for missing people with cognitive impairment conditions who are equally hard to find,” said Scott Martin, director of SafetyNet by LoJack, who joined the company after 24 years with the Connecticut State Police.

The service is currently available in parts of 18 states; it has 100 percent coverage in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Federal law requires area law enforcement to be the primary immediate response agency in situations where people with cognitive issues are reported missing. “These are true emergencies where if these people are not found immediately, something bad is going to happen,” Martin said.

As it does with its stolen vehicle program, the company concentrates the bulk of its training on police, fire and sheriff’s departments. Along with its digital radio frequency tracking equipment, LoJack provides an eight-hour search-and-rescue class at the public safety agency’s location. While learning how to use the equipment is “pretty basic stuff,” the officials who’ll carry out the search and rescue also are educated on how to approach and communicate with people with cognitive conditions.

That’s crucial because people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia usually have lost their short-term memory, while their long-term memory can be surprisingly sharp and in their minds, they might be living 50, 60 or 70 years ago. “You encounter them on the street and they’re convinced that World War II is still going on,” Martin said. “The natural reaction of an untrained police officer would to be say, ‘Hey, you must be doing drugs or you’re drinking, you’re crazy, we’re going to lock you up.’

“We teach the police to understand that this is an illness of the brain and that they are not going to convince this person that it’s 2014, so don’t argue with the person. You have to let them live in the reality they are in.”

Other behaviors unique to those with cognitive impairments:

•Skin sensitivity issues that cause them to not want to be touched.

•Some are deathly afraid of dogs. “And what do we do typically in search-and-rescue situations? We call out the K-9 unit,” Martin said. “The sound of a barking dog may cause the person to retreat further into a hiding situation.”

•Something in the mechanism of these wandering people’s brains may cause them to aggressively try to get to water, and in many cases, cut holes in or climb over fences or go through locked gates to get to it. It’s a leading cause of death for children with autism and a significant factor when people with Alzheimer’s and dementia stray.

The current customer cost of SafetyNet is $30 per month with a $99 enrollment fee. A confidential database is established that contains critical search-and-rescue information about that person: physical description — height, weight, eyes, hair color — along with a photograph and wandering history.

“People with dementia, Alzheimer’s, autism or any other cognitive condition, history has shown that if they wander once, they are more than likely to wander again and many times, they wander to the same place,” Martin said.

“It is tremendously helpful in an emergency search-and-rescue situation, which all of these are, that the police can just pull up our database at their police department and say, ‘Aha. This person was missing three weeks ago, we found him at the Dunkin’ Donuts on Brookline Avenue. We should send a cruiser right down there.’”

While the SafetyNet bracelet is extremely light, weighing about a half-ounce, and is made of specialized skin-sensitive material, most people with dementia and Alzheimer’s don’t want things on their wrist and prefer to wear the bracelet on their ankles. If someone is persistent in trying to get it off, there is a leather version that needs a third person to screw it in place — and to take it off.

Regionally, the Massachusetts and Connecticut State Police have SafetyNet tracking capabilities in their helicopters, an invaluable tool as many people with Alzheimer’s and dementia are in very good physical condition; the average person in good physical condition can walk about four to five miles an hour. “If they wander and they’re gone for two or three hours, they can easily be many miles away from where they started because in most cases it’s not a physical limitation, it’s a brain limitation,” Martin said.

This means it’s essential to report as quickly as possible that a person with a cognitive impairment is missing. “Most of our rescue times are under an hour and that’s pretty amazing because statistically, nationwide, the average search-and-rescue time without using technology for an individual with cognitive conditions that goes missing is about nine hours,” Martin said.

“The dramatic difference there, particularly on a hot summer day or a cold winter night, the difference between 30 minutes to an hour and nine hours is clearly the difference between life and death, there’s no doubt about it.”