The number of people suffering from dementia is expected to increase significantly as the baby boomer generation ages. As of 2010, there were an estimated 35.6 million people with dementia worldwide and this number is expected to almost double every 20 years, to an estimated 65.7 million in 2030, and 115.4 million in 2050.

One of the most common concerns for families of dementia sufferers is that the person can often wander off and become lost after getting confused and disoriented.

Researchers at Scandinavia’s largest research organization, SINTEFF, have been trialling a prototype GPS application to track dementia sufferers living at home, in institutions, and in other forms of shared accommodation facilities.

Funded by regional research funding organizations, the Trygge Spor project has seen more than 50 dementia sufferers using the system for periods of several weeks up to a year. According to the researchers, people equipped with the GPS tracker felt safer, had more freedom to move around and enjoyed better quality of life.

“As part of Trygge Spor we have taken the first steps on the road to putting words into action by documenting the results on a research basis,” says Project Manager Dag Ausen. ”Our aim has been to develop GPS systems with component sensors and support systems as a means of monitoring the movements of dementia sufferers.”

Because dementia sufferers are major users of municipal nursing and care services, five municipalities participated in the project, which examined such issues as whether GPS was an effective tool in the care of people with dementia, what effects its use would have and what impact it would have on health services.

While concerns might be raised about the privacy of the GPS users, Klara Borgen at Trondheim municipality, which participated in the study, said this was not an issue.

”We observe that the use of alarm and localization technologies are the least intrusive interventions, allowing sufferers increased levels of freedom, mobility and independence,’’ she says. “They do not experience these types of intervention as being forced on them.”

Norway’s health ministry has been monitoring the project and is looking at a system where doctors give patients a tracking device, even if they don’t want it.

Further research is required to look at improving alert systems and notifications before the GPS system becomes widely available. SINTEFF has proposed a centralized alarm reception system and local follow-up.

In addition to the prototype, researchers are looking at looking at developing new systems to meet people’s needs as the person’s disease progresses.