Many happy returns: GPS ID bracelets help Michiganders living with dementia find their way home

This article is part of State of Health, a series about how Michigan communities are rising to address health challenges. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund.

A new collaboration in Calhoun County has helped 135 missing people with dementia return safely home – and made life easier for their caregivers, local law enforcement, and health care providers. 

The Help Home Personal ID* Program provides county residents and their caregivers comfortable, waterproof GPS ID bracelets that provide location, emergency contacts, and medical information. When a person wanders off, they can be located. And, when a wandering person is found, first responders can scan the bracelet QR code or call the 800 number on its back to immediately connect them with loved ones.

The program is organized by Miles For Memories, a Calhoun County-based organization that serves people living with dementia. Other collaborators include the Calhoun County Sheriff's Office, the Michigan State Police, the Michigan Sheriffs' AssociationEmergent Health Partners, the Area Agencies on Aging Association of MichiganMichigan State UniversityWayne State University, and other local stakeholders.

"When Miles for Memories was born, we had a group of people from the community that all had a role to play in caring for a person living with dementia," says Sherii Joy Sherban, Miles for Memories leadership team chair. "We were trying to figure out how to do a search and rescue or return of a person with dementia who had wandered off."

As representatives from local 911 dispatch, ambulance services, health care, and law enforcement joined the discussion, the benefits of transforming the management of missing persons cases involving dementia patients became crystal clear.

"The brainstorming that occurred when all of these groups came together was the birth of challenging conversations," Sherban says. "We truly looked at what we needed and when we went looking for what was available out in the community, there wasn't anything. So we started to look at existing technologies."

What they found was a personal ID bracelet that offered both GPS tracking and information retrieval capabilities. A grant from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund helps make the bracelets available to area residents for a one-time charge of $25. The Battle Creek Community Foundation wrote and administered the grant for the program.

A Help Home Personal ID* Program bracelet. "We do a lot of work in health and in senior independent living. Many of our donors and folks that we know have suffered from different types of dementia," says Annette Chapman, senior vice president of the Battle Creek Community Foundation. "We thought that we can improve the lives of dementia patients as well as their caregivers and families by giving them a sense of security by having these bracelets."

The program has already distributed 1,500 bracelets to residents of Calhoun County and surrounding areas, and helped 135 individuals safely return home. Sherban describes one example in which an elderly man with dementia showed up at a hospital.

"[Hospital staff] were able to scan his bracelet and directly communicate with his emergency contact," she says. "They knew who he was, where he lived, what the emergency contact was, found out what medications he was taking, and talked to his physicians in order to make decisions. Ultimately, a loved one was able to pick him up and take him home."

Sherban notes that 7% of those wearing bracelets are caregivers for loved ones living with dementia. These caregivers feel more at ease knowing that if something happens to incapacitate them, first responders will know to provide needed care for their loved one living with dementia.

"It's not a group of people that we originally thought of," Sherban says. "But our very first person to get a bracelet was a caregiver that had a heart attack and ended up in the hospital. He was in the hospital for several days before he was alert, aware, and able to ask, 'Where's my wife and who's taking care of her?'"

"Significant savings"

Through conversations with project collaborators, Miles for Memory staff calculated cost savings as a result of implementing the bracelets. They estimated that without bracelets, search and rescue costs run from $11,000 to over $17,000 per person. A person identified by their bracelet can reunite with their loved one rather than take a costly ambulance ride to a hospital and rack up emergency room charges for tests, as the bracelet provides access to medical history. Sherban says conservative estimates for those costs are $5,000. Doing the math, the 135 residents who have been located and reunited with loved ones using the bracelets have saved $675,000 in ambulance and hospital costs alone.

"We may have saved some search and rescue costs at the same time, so obviously that amount could be even higher," Sherban says.

For Calhoun County Sheriff Steve Hinkley, offering the bracelets to residents was both a personal and professional decision. 

"Throughout my life, especially towards the end of her life, my mother was suffering pretty significantly with dementia," Hinkley says. "I also realized how much of an impact these could have on our law enforcement community when we're responding to missing people who walk away from nursing homes and other facilities throughout the county."

Hinkley notes that, previously, when a person with dementia was found wandering, law enforcement faced the hours-long task of bringing them back to the police station, making positive identification, and locating a relative or facility representative to bring them home. With the bracelets, officers can immediately access information about the person and reach out to their emergency contacts.

"In a lot of cases, they may not remember exactly who they are. They're not sure where they live," Hinkley says. "Imagine spending five, six hours — driving this individual back to the police department, sitting them down, feeding the individual. And imagine the time that it takes to try to find out who this person is and where they're missing from versus just scanning this code and immediately knowing where they're from, who the loved one is, and then making that reunification instantly. It will definitely save a lot of labor costs, significant savings."

Hinkley estimates that Calhoun County has between five and 10 dementia-related walk-away cases each year. Because the state does not track data under a specific walk-away category, no hard numbers are available.

"We've had some success with canine tracking. We've had some success with community members spotting people walking in unusual places and we find that this person is missing and in need. And then, over the years, we've had some tragedies. We've had individuals that have been missing that end up deceased. Those are the real sad situations," Hinkley says. "Hopefully, this will help prevent some of those."

The Calhoun County Sheriff's Office has trained five support staff to work at Personal ID* Program resource sites at both its Battle Creek and Marshall regional offices, where county residents can register for the program. Hinkley hopes to begin promoting the program this month.

"Our staff will be able to help you get plugged in to whatever equipment you need," Hinkley says. "They'll also help you build a profile and get everything established so you and your loved one can be successful. You can come and directly sit down with them and they'll help you get the program started."

More Michigan agencies replicating the program

Miles for Memories is also leveraging Michigan Health Endowment Fund grant dollars to host free workshops where other Michigan Area Agencies on Aging, law enforcement agencies, and social service agencies can learn to replicate the program in their communities.

The most recent Help Home Personal ID* Program training. Those interested in attending a November 2022 training session can contact Sherban for details at (269) 979-1412 or [email protected] To date, nearly 100 individuals representing 50 Michigan counties have completed the training.

"This is just a phenomenal program that we all need to take a serious look at," Hinkley says. "It is so valuable. It just makes sense on every different level. And it's so simple. It's unbelievable based on the value and the outcomes that can be achieved."

Estelle Slootmaker is a working writer focusing on journalism, book editing, communications, poetry, and children's books. You can contact her at [email protected] or www.constellations.biz.

Photos courtesy of Miles for Memories.