David Zax

A View from David Zax

GPS-Enabled Shoes to Help Track Down Grandpa

The next frontier for GPS? Footwear for those suffering from Alzheimer’s.

  • November 11, 2011

Shoes with built-in GPS could be coming to a store near you this month. AFP reports that 3,000 of the shoes, a collaboration between GTX Corp and Aetrex Worldwide, have shipped and will retail at about $300 per pair.

What, exactly, you may wonder, is a possible use case for a GPS-enabled shoe? There are several, apparently.

MSNBC reports that another effort, from something called “The Aphrodite Project” (SexyGpsShoes.com) involves GPS-equipped sandals intended to keep prostitutes safe. “Our first shoe … was inspired by the prostitutes of ancient Greece and Rome, who enticed clients with their flutes and sandals that left ‘follow me’ footprints in the earth,” write the founders of The Aphrodite Project.

Another use case could be for missing children: GTX Corp first got the idea for the shoes, reportedly, in the wake of the 2002 Elizabeth Smart case. The idea was that if a child were kidnapped or wandered off while wearing the GPS shoes, you could easily track him or her down. Call it a digitally enabled AMBER alert.

Eventually, GTX Corp and Aetrex came to settle on another “use case” entirely: the Alzheimer’s patient. Those suffering from early-stage Alzheimer’s will often wander off and become lost or confused. “They go for a walk and they can get lost for days,” Andrew Carle, a professor of Health and Human Services at George Mason College (and an adviser on the GPS shoe project), told AFP. It is, sadly, a growth market. Five million Americans have Alzheimer’s; as many as 20 million may come to suffer from it in the near future. The majority of Alzheimer’s patients exhibit wandering behavior at some point; if not found within a few days, these sufferers can become severely injured or even die from dehydration.

Much like with similar technologies that allow you to essentially helicopter parent your pet, the GTX/Aetrex shoe allows caretakers or family members to set up a geofence for safe wandering; if the wearer strays beyond the geofence, an alert will go out. But aren’t there easier ways to get a GPS unit on a senior? Carle claimed that paranoia often prevents Alzheimer’s patients from wearing, say, a wristwatch with a GPS unit. “If it’s a wristwatch and it’s not their wristwatch,” he said, “they will take it off. So you have to hide it.”

It isn’t the first time caretakers have resorted to a bit of ingenuity to aid in caring for those with Alzheimer’s. Listen, for example, to this amazing story care of Radiolab about a German nursing home that built a fake bus stop to convince its wandering Alzheimer’s sufferers to simply sit and wait.

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