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Global Positioning Systems and Dementia: An Ethical Analysis

Sussex police have announced a scheme to fit people suffering from dementia with GPS tracking systems. These small devices will allow police to locate the wearer, and also allow the wearer to reach a 24 hour helpline by pressing a small button on the device. It has been claimed that these devices will save police time and resources, as well as reducing both the potential risk to dementia patients who go missing, and the anxiety that relatives of the missing person will feel when their loved one goes missing.

However, some parties have decried the introduction of this scheme as barbaric and inhumane. For example, Neil Duncan-Jordan, the national officer of the National Pensioners’ Convention, claimed that the scheme serves to stigmatise sufferers of dementia by equating them with people who have committed a criminal act.

I am not convinced by Duncan-Jordan’s assertion that giving a dementia patient a GPS locater is to equate them with someone who has committed a criminal act. There are clearly different reasons for providing each person with a GPS tracker. Criminals are made to wear GPS as a constraint on their freedom. If criminals know that they can be located at any time, this will impose restrictions upon what they feel free to do; the GPS tracking of criminals is essentially the modern Panopticon. In contrast, in the Sussex scheme, the tracking device would only be fitted with the express consent of the individual (if they are still capable of providing valid consent) and their relatives. More generally, the fact that criminals are treated in some way does not entail that treating someone in a similar way is to treat them like a criminal. For instance, incarcerated criminals are made to keep to a strictly regimented routine throughout their day, and are punished if they fail to adhere to it; does this mean that we are treating school-children like criminals?! Moreover, it should be acknowledged that several hundred people already use the GPS trackers without it being recommended by a police scheme, and this has not previously caused moral concern. Is there really anything morally problematic about it?

I must admit that I do not find the idea of those suffering from dementia wearing GPS trackers morally problematic per se. However, I think that a case can be made for claiming that there is something morally troubling about the Sussex scheme; but, I don’t think that the problem is what Duncan-Jordan claims it is. Rather, the morally troubling element about the scheme is that one of the main justifications for it has been that it will cut police costs. There seems to be at least some cause for moral complaint here, since it seems abhorrent to claim that we should persuade a person suffering from dementia to relinquish some of their privacy in the name of saving money; such an assertion does seem somewhat inhumane. Now, whilst those with severe dementia may lack the capacity to have any interest in their own privacy, those in the early stages can clearly have such an interest; moreover, some might go further and argue that even an incapacitated person’s privacy ought to be respected as far as possible, in so far as doing so is central to recognising their dignity.

There is then, an important difference between the Sussex scheme and between families (or carers) providing a relative suffering from dementia with a GPS tracker. In the latter case, families and carers are overtly motivated primarily by a concern for the safety of their loved one as an identifiable individual person. On the other hand, when an institution, such as a police force, introduces a general scheme persuading sufferers of dementia to wear a similar tracker, it is difficult not to focus on the financial basis of the institution’s motivation for providing the trackers. Whilst the family’s motivation seems morally admirable, the institution’s seems despicable; it says to the sufferer of dementia; ‘you are costing us too much money, and draining resources for others, therefore you should really wear this’. In contrast, the sufferer’s family can persuade their loved one to wear a GPS by appealing to them as an individual, and the care that they have for him/her.

As such, there is a case for claiming that, in justifying the scheme by appealing to costs, the Sussex police fail to acknowledge the delicate nature of the sufferer’s decline into dementia, (and the accompanying loss of independence that that entails). Whilst this does not represent a knock down argument against the scheme (sometimes consequentialist morality might demand that we prioritise resource allocation over individual suffering), I believe that this might explain some of our moral qualms about the case. Going forward, these concerns could be allayed by distributing the trackers to families under the name of the NHS as part of the sufferer’s treatment plan, rather than being distributed by a police force whose professed justification, admittedly amongst other more laudable aims, is cutting their costs.

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4 Comment on this post

  1. This GPS program the Sussex police are thinking of introducing is an interesting concept but requires more discussion and consideration. Nearly 200,000 Ontarians in Canada have dementia, an increase of 16 percent over the past four years. By 2020, nearly 250,000 seniors in this province will be living with some form of dementia. Statistics show that three out of five people with dementia go missing at some point, often without warning. There is greater risk of injury, even death, for those missing for more than 24 hours. Having people with dementia wear a GPS navigation system could potentially reduce the number of injuries and cases of death from incicents of someone with dementia going missing. Should the program be mandatory – no, but residents in the Sussex community should be given the option to register a loved one with the program. In Canada, we have a program called MedicAlert SafelyHome where people can register their loved one in a database that personelle from emergency services can access to obtain information about that individual to help with the search. In Ontario specificially, we have launched a program called Finding Your Way

  2. Anthony Drinkwater

    I agree completely with you, Jonny, on the moral issue and on nearly all the points you make.
    I would take you up on only one point : “saving money” or “cutting costs” in this case means being able to achieve the same objective, viz, finding people , more quickly and using less time and resources. I can’t see anything immoral in that.
    Is it somehow nobler or more ethical to take longer and use more resources to achieve one’s objectives?

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