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A George Mason University professor is putting his best foot forward in an effort to solve the problem of individuals afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease who may be too disoriented to safely return to their homes after venturing out.

“An estimated 60 percent of Alzheimer’s patients will wander at some point, and 47 percent of those not found within 24 hours may die, according to a 2002 study published in The American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease & Other Dementias,” said Professor Andrew Carle, founding director of the Program in Senior Housing Administration at George Mason University.

Nationwide, Carle estimates that the disease affects more than 5 million people and will continue to grow as aging populations increase. “It will quadruple with the advent of the aging baby boomers,” he said.

According to the Fairfax County Police Department, in 2013 police officers responded to a total of 340 service calls for missing adults, a portion of which were for Alzheimer’s patients who had wandered away from home and were unable to return on their own.

Police said a search last year for one such missing Reston man, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, involved more than 60 police officers including the FCPD bike team, a police K9, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue department personnel, a Fire and Rescue department boat, and a police helicopter. Fortunately, the man was eventually discovered and was returned home safely, but that is not always the case. Police are often unsure where to look for these individuals and must rely on information from family members who themselves can only make educated guesses as to where to search for their loved ones.

Carle says that come this summer, however, searching for afflicted individuals will get a revolutionary “leg-up” with the advent of an invention that he has helped to develop.

In 2007, Carle said he was seeking answers to the issue, and came across a pair of shoes developed for children by California company GTX Corporation that included a Global Positioning System embedded within them.

Carle contacted the company’s CEO, Patrick Bertagna, and suggested manufacturing a similar device for adults with dementia.

“Using GPS technology has always seemed like a good idea to be able to track the whereabouts of those afflicted with Alzheimer’s,” he said. “The issue has always been how to incorporate it within something familiar. People with Alzheimer’s tend to exhibit both confusion and paranoia and I have actually seen them try to remove anything foreign to them, such as wristband devices. But most elderly individuals usually have one or two pairs of favorite shoes, so it just seemed logical. Procedural memory, such as brushing your teeth and getting dressed, is ususlly the last memory retained in people with Alzheimer’s.”

Carle and Bertagna launched a prototype GPS shoe in 2011, but soon realized they needed to take the idea a step further. This summer, GTX will introduce “SmartSole” insoles with an even smaller GPS device embedded within them.

“These insoles are just like the kind you see at drug stores that you can trim and insert into any pair of shoes,” said Carle. “Once purchasing them, a caregiver can monitor the whereabouts of their loved ones by creating a personalized ‘geo-zone.’ If the wearer steps out of the radius of that safety zone, the caregiver will receive an alert or email, making them aware, and allowing them to go online and see the exact location of their loved one.”

According to Carle, the insoles will cost approximately $250 and an online monitoring service fee will cost approximately $10 to $30 per month.

“This is not just about the safety of the wearer, but also about the empowerment and peace of mind of their caregivers,” he said.

gmacdonald@fairfaxtimes.com