Apple's Air Tags are being used to track loved ones with dementia

Americans are attaching Apple’s AirTags to their loved ones who have DEMENTIA as part of ‘imperfect’ method to make it easier to track their relatives if they go missing

  • Apple AirTags are $30 tracking devices that present an imperfect way to locate loved ones that can wander off, according to a Wall Street Journal report
  • However, exerts in the report argue the issue is not ethically straightforward and consent should be required to track all individuals
  • Experienced caregivers argue that worrying about the ethics is naïve and that any tools that make their job easier are valuable 
  • AirTags can also be inaccurate, failing to provide tracking information in real time, and Apple only supports them for the use of tracking personal items

People are attaching small Apple tracking devices to loved ones with dementia and a habit of getting lost or going missing.

Some caregivers have found that Apple AirTags offer an imperfect solution to tracking elderly people that may have a habit of walking off or getting lost – sometimes due to Alzheimer’s or dementia, according to a new Wall Street Journal report.

Although most people now carry GPS-equipped mobile phones when they leave the house, dementia patients are a group with a higher likelihood of either not having a phone or if they do, leaving it at home.

Instead, AirTags can be attached to things that they need to bring with them when roaming unannounced, such as keys or a wallet.

This unorthodox application of AirTags, which were introduced in April 2021 for keeping track of personal items, is not unique. People have been using them to track children and pets too.

However, AirTags can be difficult to locate precisely and questions regarding the morality of non-consensual tracking have also arisen.

Caregivers have resorted to attaching Apple AirTags to loved ones with dementia that have a habit of wandering off unannounced or getting lost

An AirTag is a small Apple device that can be attached to keys or a wallet. Third party accessory manufacturers now market new cases for attaching them to the clothing of elderly people with dementia

Michelle Hirschboeck is a graduate assistant at the University of Minnesota who has resorted to using an AirTag for tracking her husband Paul, who has dementia, per the Journal. 

At first she was advised to buy GPS-equipped insoles for Paul’s shoes but he wears different shoes on different days and those trackers can cost more than $300. Many GPS tracking services also require an ongoing subscription fee.

‘He always puts his keys and wallet in his pocket when he goes out,’ she told the WSJ. For the past two months Paul has been walking around with an AirTag attached to his keys.

The Apple AirTag, launched in April 2021 is designed for tracking personal items and not people

But AirTags do not provide a perfect solution as they are not always accurate and they don’t usually provide location information in real time. 

AirTags are not GPS devices in themselves. Instead, they work by communicating with nearby iPhones, iPads and other devices in Apple’s network which can record their location and anonymously report it to the owner of the AirTag.

This means the AirTag will not work as well when the person carrying it does not have a phone on them.

On top of that are issues regarding consent. The WSJ noted that attitudes towards covert tracking of people can vary.

Paul Gaugler, a professor of long-term care at the University of Minnesota, told the WSJ: ‘Just because someone has been diagnosed with dementia doesn’t mean they can’t still make decisions for themselves.

‘They can and should be asked if it’s OK with them.’

‘It’s more constructive to understand what leads to the wandering and to try to come up with strategies to prevent it,’ he added. 

On an Apple forum, one user posted that they were hoping to use an AirTag to track their grandmother who has dementia and ‘frequently leaves the home alone’. In the post they cited the ‘privacy safety features built in’ as being an issue.

The problem is that the AirTag is designed for tracking items and not people. It therefore has a privacy feature that caused it to beep if separated from its owner’s iPhone.

Apple have addressed this feature on their website, saying: ‘To alert people nearby, any AirTag separated for a period of time from its owner will emit a sound when it’s moved.’

Another user in the forum suggested that the poster should take apart the AirTag and remove its speaker, preventing it from making a noise.

A Canadian company, Wairco, markets an AirTag accessory as being ‘for families struggling with dementia’. The product is a clip that allows the device to be attached to pants, shirts, socks or bags.

While AirTags provide a solution for some, using them is only an imperfect method for dealing with complicated illnesses. 

Apple has specified that it does not endorse the use of AirTags for the tracking of people.

In a February statement the company said: ‘AirTag was designed to help people locate their personal belongings, not to track people or another person’s property, and we condemn in the strongest possible terms any malicious use of our products.

‘Unwanted tracking has long been a societal problem, and we took this concern seriously in the design of AirTag.’

Laurel Wittman is the president of the non-profit Well Spouse Association that works with individuals caring for chronically ill or disabled partners.

In a comment addressing criticisms of the covert use of AirTags for tracking loved ones put forward in the WSJ report, she said that the ‘experts come across as naïve in their focus on patient autonomy’.

‘Wandering can happen 24 hours a day,’ she said. ‘We need to sleep.’

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