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Elderly people suffering from dementia could be electronically tagged.

Science minister Malcolm Wicks suggested that such tagging technology, which is already used to track convicted criminals on early release from prison, could also help a family caring for an elderly relative.

He told the BBC: "This is about dignity and independence in old age," and said that far from making someone a prisoner in their own home, such a device could give a dementia sufferer the "freedom to roam around their communities".

Wicks said that permission from the individual concerned should be sought before using such a device.

Kate Jopling of Help the Aged told the BBC: "Although when we first hear this it smacks of 'Big Brother', we shouldn't dismiss the possibility of some new technologies to help us in providing better care for people with dementia".

Tagging was introduced by the UK Home Office in 1999 as part of its home detention curfew scheme, which came about in an attempt to help reduce prison overcrowding.

Such a surveillance device, which is attached to a person's ankle, uses radio frequency identification (RFID) technology. The tag communicates with a base station that is hooked up to a telephone line. If the person wanders out of range it sets off an alert.

But other technology options could also be considered, including GPS tracking.

"Let's use satellites and satellite technology to tackle some real important social issues that worry many families," said Wicks.

Symptoms of dementia, for which there is no cure, can often include memory loss and confusion, making the sufferer more vulnerable to wandering off.

According to the Alzheimer's Society, there are currently 700,000 sufferers of dementia in the UK of which the majority are elderly people. ®

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