Dementia can be cruel and unpleasant but it does not rob people of their humanity. When a person develops dementia, family, friends and professionals can become fearful. They fear the person may get lost – up to 60% of people with dementia ‘wander’.
We now have technology to track people. Mobile phones can be used to track children, spouses or staff. We also have electronic tags. The suggestion that we tag people with dementia so they can be taken home if they wander is gaining ground.
Tagging is increasingly seen as a way of protecting those with dementia. This argument is flawed. Although electronic monitoring can tell you where a person is,
it cannot tell you what a person is doing.
One of my relatives had dementia and would wander around London for hours. He fished in Clapham Common (I dealt with the summons), picked flowers in Southwark Park and helped the park keepers to pick up litter. He remained strong and active, ate well and slept without problems. He had as full a life as was possible. Yes, it was scary at times and I played my part in searching when he failed to return home.
The person who wanders is wandering for a purpose. They may not be distressed or upset but enjoying the bustle of a street market or the peace of a park. They might wish to wander. There are costs in returning home a person who is happily wandering: they may become distressed or depressed; they may be deprived of the benefits of exercise and their condition may deteriorate.
If a person cannot wander without being put at an unacceptable risk, a quick-fix gimmick is no substitute for company and care. Sometimes you have to balance the risks of freedom against those of curtailing that freedom. It’s not easy.
If we really care about people with dementia, let’s not dehumanise them by tracking them. Let’s give them the same access as other citizens in Europe to drugs that might help them. Let’s provide better community support. Let’s provide better staffing levels in hospitals and care homes. Let’s save tracking for those who are truly dangerous – not those who potter with a purpose and sometimes get lost.
Linda Nazarko is nurse consultant at Ealing PCT
NEXT WEEK: Rob Harteveldt on Gordon Brown’s vision of healthcare