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Mobile Service Tracks Alzheimer's Patients

The Comfort Zone service combines GPS and wireless technologies to enable caregivers to monitor Alzheimer's patients.

The Alzheimer's Association has introduced a service designed to help healthcare providers and patients' families keep track of their charges.

Alzheimer's disease is a progressive brain disorder which causes memory loss and problems with thinking, and often leads to dementia. Patients with the disease may wander away from familiar surroundings and not know how to return.

That's where the wireless service comes in. Comfort Zone, as it is called, is a Web-based application that communicates the location of a person with Alzheimer's, offering caregivers assistance with round-the-clock monitoring services and access to emergency health records from the MedicAlert Foundation.

It was introduced Thursday by the Alzheimer's Association in conjunction with Omnilink, a vendor of location-based services. Comfort Zone combines GPS and cellular technologies with online mapping. Caregivers log in to a secure, password-protected Web site, similar to logging in to Web mail. The service can be used to map out "safety zones," and if the person with Alzheimer's travels beyond the pre-sent zones, the caregivers get alerts via text or e-mail within 15-30 minutes, depending on the device and service package purchased.

Zones and alerts can be adjusted as the disease progresses and the patient's mental state deteriorates. Caregivers can determine the patient's location within two minutes by initiating a "find me" query, or caregivers can initiate a "follow me" session, which provides updates every two minutes for an hour.

Bill Bailey, who has the disease, tested the service. He is an Early-Stage Advisor for the Alzheimer's Association. An avid exerciser, Bailey was able to ride his bicycle again and even drove 600 miles to camp with his brother-in-law -- the first time hewas able to do so -- since his diagnosis. "I felt more confident that I would not get lost, because my wife could keep up with me," Bailey said in a statement by the association and Omnilink.

Bailey's wife, Kitty Kennedy, added, "As a caregiver, it gives me peace of mind to know that Bill is able to move about freely yet safely even if I’m at work, running errands or taking a break. With Comfort Zone in our back pocket, we bought ourselves more time and independence."

The service is designed for all care providers, including families, in-home nurses, and caretakers in retirement communities. However, the service is primarily for family caretakers. Even family members living in another state can monitor the safety of a patient thousands of miles away, Omnilink said.

As Americans live longer, Alzheimer's is growing, and will hit 16 million Americans by 2050, up from 6.3 million today, according to the Alzheimer's Association.

The service starts at $42.99 per month with a $45 activation fee, similar to most cell phone services.

Comfort Zone isn't the only application using wireless services to track wandering Alzheimer's patients. LoJack, the famous device for helping cops find stolen cars, announced the LoJack Safety Net in February. Omnilink released an earlier service, specific to Qualcomm handsets. And Healthsense eNeighbor connects a patient's home with Wi-Fi sensors that detect when a patient gets out of bed, sense movement and inactivity, and even monitors toilet usage.

InformationWeek has published an in-depth report on e-health and the federal stimulus package. Download the report here (registration required).

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