Tagging Patients with Dementia: Barcodes and More

In some countries, the population is aging so fast that the government has to face more and more problems associated with it. One of such issues is that the elderly often suffer from dementia in its various forms, including Alzheimer’s disease. In Japan, a new solution has been introduced: those with dementia can now use adhesive barcodes to be easier to find if lost.

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Tagging people with barcodes can sound like an episode from some sci-fi series. However, the reason behind it is not Big Brother who is watching you: it’s just that barcodes can make it easier to identify people found wandering alone with no understanding of who they are and where they live. One of the banes of the modern world, dementia urges people to look for new ways to reduce rapidly growing healthcare costs and introduce new solutions aimed at assisting those who take care of the elderly with cognitive impairment.

Stripes of identity

The city of Iruma, located north of Tokyo, Japan, has become a place where an innovative approach to identification of wandering patients with dementia has recently been introduced.

The experiment started in 2016, when the social welfare service announced the project was designed to help the relatives and caregivers of such patients find their seniors faster. What they offer is adhesive seals for nails that have a barcode on them. Each barcode is unique and can provide information about the person wearing the ID sticker. The chip is reported to be waterproof and can remain in place for as long as two weeks. The square is tiny, as it 1 cm (0.4 in) in size. The personal details and contact number can help find the person’s relatives fast instead of spending a lot of time identifying him or her.

While it may sound strange or even disturbing, Japan is trying to solve the problem of the population aging. By 2060, the share of the elderly is expected to have reached 40% – a horrifying number for a nation that is shrinking.

Barcodes are a more convenient alternative to stickers that are worn on clothes, because such stickers are easier to lose: a patient with dementia can wander and leave some of their clothes behind, thus rendering the sticker useless. The above mentioned barcodes can also be worn not only on nails, but also on feet, as they can be hidden in a sock to prevent the patient from removing it.

A controversial issue

Some people find it inappropriate to tag people using labels, devices or whatever else, as such an approach, according to them, is dehumanizing patients; it makes them no more than a bunch of bones and remaining muscles that have no feelings. The ethics behind tagging is an issue that sparked off fierce debates.

On the one hand, using electronic tags or some other means of tracking feels wrong to many people – it sounds as if patients with dementia were criminals.

On the other hand, there are many organizations, including The Alzheimer’s Society, that spoke out in favor of tagging the affected elderly. Besides, police in Sussex (UK) wants to adopt the electronic tagging technology to reduce costs of finding wandering patients suffering from dementia.

Although the approach may seem barely human to many people, tagging the elderly may be beneficial for both the authorities and the patients themselves, should they get lost and fail to return home or even say their name to someone who will try to help. It can be of help for relatives and other caregivers of such patients, as it will take less time to find them this way. There are many devices available that can serve this purpose, and a list of some of them is available here.

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