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The Connection That Alzheimer’s Couldn’t Break

September 19, 2017
From the WebMD Archives

By Kenneth Shinozuka

My grandfather loved to sing. Growing up with him in a three-generation household, I learned the lyrics to his favorite melodies. He would tuck me into bed at night with a soothing lullaby, and he’d belt out battle hymns whenever he chased garbage trucks with me every Friday.

When I was four, on a family trip in Tokyo, my Grandpa and I were walking through one of our favorite parks and humming selections from his songbook. Then, suddenly, Grandpa became silent. Even at my young age, I could tell from his blank expression that, though he knew his way around the park, he was lost. Terrified, I remember that Grandpa comforted me by carrying me in his tender arms while circling around the park.

The moment that my grandfather stopped singing marked the first sign of his Alzheimer’s disease. Since I was only four years old at the time, I could not comprehend the gravity of my grandfather’s condition. It was only as his memory and his identity began to disappear that I came to understand that I was slowly losing someone I loved. As his condition deteriorated, he began to wander at night and fell a couple of times, suffering head injuries. I distinctly remember receiving a sharp knock on our front door one August morning at the break of dawn. I was shocked to see Grandpa, still in his pajamas, standing next to a policeman. It turned out that he had wandered out the front door and onto a local highway. Though he was returned to us safely, I was deeply aware that my grandfather had, only by sheer luck, narrowly avoided a profound tragedy.

My family began to take turns looking after Grandpa, but when my parents and I moved to New York City from California in 2012, my aunt became his primary caregiver. Learning that she was staying awake most of the night to keep an eye on Grandpa, I grew increasingly concerned about her wellbeing. Moreover, because his Alzheimer’s had caused his vision to decline significantly, Grandpa often fell down on the bathroom floor whenever he left the bed at night. Once, my aunt found him lying face-down next to the toilet with blood trickling out of his head. The imminent danger that his wandering posed to his safety motivated me to search for a solution to my family’s problem.

I searched extensively and tried all the available devices for detecting Grandpa’s wandering, including a sensor mat on the floor and a sensor pad on the bed, but nothing was very effective. I decided that I needed to take our family’s problems into my own hands. But how?

The answer came during a visit back to California. I was on night watch when I spotted Grandpa stepping out of bed. The moment his foot landed on the floor, a light bulb flashed in my head, and I saw the solution to my family’s problem: why don’t I attach a sensor to his clothes? As soon as he started to get out of bed, the sensor would detect a change in body position and trigger an alert on my aunt’s smartphone whenever he left his bed. I named my idea SafeWander.

My SafeWander idea seemed simple enough, but executing it was hard. I was only 14 and had just started high school, so I had to work on the design and technology in my free time. I encountered many unanticipated challenges and tapped into every possible resource for answers —studying literature, joining tech forums, and reaching out to experts. Weeks of intense research would often result in little progress and much frustration.

My frustration came to a head one day at the end of August in 2013. I had spent the entire summer struggling to wirelessly connect my circuit to a smartphone (a critical step in the development process) and believed that I had finally compiled the code just right. Instead, I had somehow created hundreds of more errors. I became convinced in that moment that my SafeWander project was an utterly futile pursuit.

But then, with almost serendipitous timing, I heard Grandpa singing in another room, his once towering voice now an indistinct whisper. By this point, he had forgotten my name and could no longer recognize all the loved ones who held him so close to their hearts. I instinctively placed my hands over his fragile palms and sang along with him, much like he had held my tiny hands as he crooned songs to me all those years ago. Suddenly, his grip tightened in what seemed to be a moment of profound recognition. My grandpa had been lost – just as he had been on our walk in that Tokyo park – but in that split second, it felt like some part of him found his way back home – back to me, back to the indescribable grace of the music that bound our love. Though his brain could not find the words to express his recognition of me, out of his lips came a familiar melody. And once again, through the wordless exchange of a musical phrase, my grandfather and I reaffirmed the lasting bonds that united us together.

Eventually, I did figure out the code and completed the SafeWander sensor. The technology worked. I will never forget how deeply our entire family was moved when the sensor first caught Grandpa wandering. At that moment,  I was struck by the power of technology to protect the ones I loved and to change lives for the better.

My grandfather passed away almost two years ago, and a few months after that, the SafeWander sensor that he inspired became commercially available. Since then, I have received many heartwarming messages from caregivers around the world who were also struggling to care for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia. It feels good to hear them say that they no longer had to suffer under the weight of fatigue and anxiety because the sensor gives them peace of mind. While Grandpa is no longer with us, SafeWander is a tribute to his legacy and the love we felt for each other. And, as I watch how the technology is reaching others and transforming their lives, I can almost hear him singing.

Kenneth was honored as one of WebMD’s Health Heroes in 2015. Kenneth Shinozuka, 19, is the inventor of SafeWander, a wearable sensor that detects wandering and prevents falls. The sensor is a tiny button that sends an alert to a caregiver’s smartphone as soon as the patient starts to leave the bed at night. The product is currently available for purchase on safewander.com and has received an overwhelmingly positive response from its users in homes and facilities. He is currently a sophomore at Harvard College and will continue growing his company.

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