John O'Connor

Currently, more than five million people in this great country of ours suffer from Alzheimer’s disease.

Chances are pretty good that you have a friend or relative who has been so victimized. Chances are even better that such folks account for a sizable portion of your community’s residents.

As we all know, the ravages of Alzheimer’s are devastating. Victims are robbed of their memories and, ultimately, their personalities. Then they die. One of the real dangers facing people with Alzheimer’s is that they may wander off and get hurt, or worse.

Yet there is a very simple, effective way to basically prevent this from happening. Unfortunately, it is also illegal in many places. I am referring to implanting microchips in residents with dementia.

Before you accuse me of cruelty or worse for making such a recommendation, please hear me out.

The fact is, we already allow a lot of potentially risky things to happen. For example, we let teenagers obtain drivers’ licenses, even though the statistics tell us more than 3,000 teens will be killed in auto accidents each year. We also allow potentially lethal power tools to be sold, allow children to play sports that may harm their bodies and allow nuclear power plants to operate. We give these and other potentially harmful things a pass for a simple reason: the potential rewards far outweigh the limited risks.

Yet for some reason we get all squeamish and paranoid at the prospect of a microchip being implanted in a confused person with a high risk for self harm. Frankly, it’s baffling.

Big Brother will be watching even more closely. Our society will be controlled. Evil-doers will steal our identities. The doomsday-scenario list goes on.

At the heart of such accusations is the view that such implants somehow will undermine our freedom and independence. And to be certain, microchips — as any tool — can be used to help or harm.

Several states have squashed the debate by putting laws in place that prohibit or severely limit the use of microchips in humans. Count California, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Wisconsin among them.

All this to prevent something about the size of a grain of rice from being implanted between the shoulder blades. In my view, it’s these laws that are potentially damaging.

But I’ve also been around the block enough times to know that there are few things harder to change than a made-up mind. Fortunately, a less-offensive Plan B may be emerging.

In South Carolina, state lawmakers are suggesting that assisted living communities use GPS systems to monitor residents who may wander off. Pending legislation is expected to include ways to track at-risk residents, such as purchasing GPS-equipped wrist watches for those with dementia.

Although these devices may be less secure, they also are devoid of the stigma so many associate with microchip implants. In the end, that alone may be the reason this alternative option gains greater acceptance.

John O’Connor is editorial director of McKnight’s Senior Living. Email him at [email protected].