CareTrak, a system that uses radio technology to keep track of individuals with a tendency to wander off, has been in St. Charles County for five years, providing peace of mind for those in the program.

CareTrak caters to people who have mental conditions that may cause them to wander from their home. Examples include Alzheimer’s, dementia and other memory loss diseases in older people, and autism or other developmental disabilities in younger children. The system uses telemetry technology to track down people who have a tendency to wander away by having the potential wanderer wear a bracelet with a transmitter in it. The St. Charles County Police Department then has a receiver device that can pick up on the location of the transmitter bracelet to within an inch of its exact location. 

The St. Charles system has had between 30-32 participants in the program over the past five years, with there currently being 18 individuals enrolled. 

“The program is a very positive opportunity to work with some special populations within our county,” said Sara Evers, assistant director of the St. Charles County Health Department. “We find that the families find this program to be extremely beneficial, and it helps relieve them of their worries that they have on populations that have the likelihood that they will elope from their family or run away in some capacity, whether that’s due to a medical diagnosis or some type of a mental or dementia type diagnosis.”

The county health department works with specialized organizations to find families who may benefit from the program. With a population of nearly 400,000 people in the county, 18 enrolled individuals may seem like a small number, but that can be traced to how the system appeals to a small niche of individuals.

Jennifer Harris, director of programs with the Lincoln County Health Department, explained some of the unique qualities of the system that can limit who can actually benefit from the program. Lincoln County installed the system just under a year ago, and looked to St. Charles County for advice and information on how the program worked. 

“It’s robust, it’s going to work through lots of different weather conditions, building conditions, that sort of thing,” Harris said. “It doesn’t rely on satellites to work, it’s basically how far away that transmitter and receiver are from each other.” 

Someone who wanders away could slip into a concrete bunker during a rainstorm and the technology could still find them – however, as Harris clarified, it only works when the transmitter and receiver are within a certain distance of each other, about one mile on the ground and five miles in the air.

Considering CareTrak’s limited range, the system works best for individuals who have 24/7 caretakers who would notice almost immediately if they went missing. When the CareTrak system needs to be deployed, police simply drive to the individual’s home, and track them with the receiver from there. However, if too much time passes, there’s a higher chance that the individual will wander out of range of the telemetry. For example, CareTrak would not work well if the individual had access to a car, or if they live on their own with no one to notice if they wander away. 

“There’s other opportunities out there, some systems work for families in one way and may not work for another family in a different way. We definitely think that there are more people who could benefit from this system and they just don’t know about it,” Evers said.

To enroll in the program it costs an initial $300 payment to purchase the wrist device, but after that there’s simply a $6 bi-monthly fee to change the battery. When the program was first started in St. Charles County, some fundraising was done to set aside money to help families who can’t afford the initial payment. Some of those funds are still left, but individuals may also be able to receive grants and scholarships from other specialty organizations they associate with.

To date, St. Charles County has only had to use the program three times, with all three times ending in successfully finding the person who wandered. 

“We have had a great opportunity to reach many people, but there’s definitely always room for more,” Evers said.

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