How I Was Inspired By…My Grandpa’s Alzheimer’s

Kenneth Shinozuka, 17, on the idea behind his medical invention that helps dementia patients stay safe.

We were on a family trip to Tokyo in 2003. My grandfather Deming and I were walking in a park. He was carrying me. And at one point he became completely quiet, and I could tell from the blank expression on his face that he was lost. And it was a really scary experience for me, since I was only 4 at the time and I knew we were lost in a foreign country. I knew he was just circling the park with me while we waited for my mother to come and find us.

KENNETHThat was the year he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and over the years it got worse and worse. His decline was slow compared to a lot of other cases—we learned about the Alzheimer’s in 2003 and he passed away last September—but it was steady.

A few years after my grandfather’s diagnosis, he started wandering out of his bed at night. We didn’t know until he wandered outside in the middle of the night, out the door and onto a nearby highway. Thankfully a policeman found him and returned him home. Soon he was wandering at least once per night and my mother, my aunt, and I all took turns looking after him. But when my parents and I moved from Irvine to New York City in 2012, my aunt became my grandfather’s primary caregiver. This put a huge burden on my aunt, who worked during the day and had kids who were getting ready for college. She had to stay awake all night just to make sure he didn’t leave the bed.

We knew something had to be done, and we tried the solutions available on the market then. But nothing reliably detected my grandfather’s wandering. It was a problem I thought about a lot, so I just decided to create something that would successfully alert my aunt whenever he got out of bed.

The same year we moved, I came back to California for Thanksgiving break. I was 14. I was watching my aunt help my grandfather out of bed, and the moment his foot landed on the floor I thought, “Why don’t I put a pressure sensor on the tip of his foot that would send an alert to my aunt’s smartphone whenever he got out of bed?”

I’ve been working on this idea for three years now and started with two prototypes. One is a sock with a sensor embedded inside, and the other is a sensor that can be attached to the patient’s foot, sock, or slipper. I had my aunt test the prototypes with my grandfather for more than 12 months, and they were able to detect 100 percent of the known cases of his wandering. My grandfather didn’t suffer any accidents after that.

I tested the sensors at several care facilities during the summer of 2014 and quickly learned that I needed a non-sock solution; many dementia patients refuse to wear socks to sleep. If you put one on, they immediately take it off. So I’ve developed a sensor that’s affixed to the patient’s clothing and detects wandering by measuring changes in a person’s body angle. We’ve been testing it at care facilities and have had good results. This is the model we’re selling on my website, safewander.com. It’s called the SafeWander Button Sensor.

I remember how moved my family was when the device first caught my grandfather’s wandering. My aunt cared only that my grandfather would be safe at night, but we could see, immediately, the positive impact on her. It brought her peace of mind, rest, and a break at the end of the day. Those things are so important for caregivers, and as the disease progresses they become a bigger and bigger deal for the entire family.

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