A Quick Guide to Finding the Right Senior Medical Alert Device

The consumer market for Personal Emergency Response Systems (PERS), commonly called medical alert devices, is increasing rapidly. There are several reasons for this rapid growth.

An Increasing Need for PERS

We live in a world where our senior population, as a percentage of the overall population, is also growing quickly. According to a report from McKnight’s Senior Living, in the U.S the population aged 65 or more years has increased 34% over the past 10 years, going from 37.8 million in 2007 to 50.9 million in 2017, or to 15.6% of the overall population. Furthermore the 65+ population is projected to reach 80.8 million by 2040 — doubling from 2000 and representing 21.6% of the overall population.

A trend over the past several years has seen more seniors wanting to “age in place,” defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as "the ability to live in one's own home and community safely, independently, and comfortably, regardless of age, income, or ability level.” Often this means either living alone at home or with a spouse or other companion who is also a senior.

 

At this time, we and most of the United States are under shelter-in-place mandates due to the COVID-19 virus, which further isolates seniors from their families and caregivers. This situation does not appear to be ending anytime soon. Seniors who are isolated at home need a way to feel protected and comfortable – this is where PERS devices come in.

 

There are many companies that sell PERS devices with a wide variety of product features and services from these vendors. Let’s take a look at what seniors and caregivers should look for when evaluating the different types of medical alert equipment.

"Must Have" Features

SOS Button

The earliest medical alert devices were simple one-button (called an SOS button) devices that a person would press when they needed help. The button was located on a pendant worn by the senior around his or her neck. When pressed, the button would connect the wearer, by way of a base station in the home, to a 24/7 call center via telephone. The call center person who took the call would then contact the appropriate responder, often a paramedic, along with people on a caregiver/family member list.

PERS devices with SOS buttons have expanded to now include equipment with GPS location capability that can be worn on a pendant or wristband outside the home and its close surrounding area. In addition, there are PERS units with SOS buttons available that can be wall-mounted in areas, such as bathrooms, where most falls in the home are concentrated

The biggest downside of an SOS button with no other features is that the senior must push the button to summon help. If a person is incapacitated due to a fall or some other medical emergency, help will not arrive. This deficiency leads to the subject of fall detection.

Automatic Fall Detection

According to the National Council on Aging (NCOA), one in four Americans 65 or older falls each year and every 11 seconds an older adult is treated in the emergency room for a fall; every 19 minutes an older adult dies from a fall.

 

Newer medical alert devices have automatic fall detection capability. Using a variety of built-in sensors, the PERS unit will sense when the wearer has fallen and automatically contact a 24/7 call center. The algorithms used by these devices, while not perfect, are designed to minimize both missing a true fall and responding to a false fall, for example, if the wearer has hit the device on a hard surface.

 

More advanced devices will also verify that the wearer has really fallen, ask if they need assistance (not all falls require help) and, if so, then summon the appropriate aid.

Waterproof

A CDC report from 2017 states that the vast majority of injuries in the bathroom (81 percent) occur because of slips and falls. Most vulnerable are seniors due to factors such as impaired eyesight, reduced mobility, chronic disease and balance problems. This makes the use of a waterproof wearable or wall-mounted medical alert device a necessity in this room if it is in a senior’s home, since the senior will be showering or bathing there.

Call Center Response Time

Studies have shown that the longer a senior who has fallen waits before emergency help arrives, the more time they will spend in the hospital and the higher the probability that their life is at risk. There is a significant range of response times among PERS companies between when a person indicates a need for help, either manually or by fall detection, and when emergency assistance arrives. This period is added to the time it takes to transfer the patient to a hospital for treatment. Unfortunately, the difference of just a few minutes between the occurrence of a medical emergency and when first responders arrive at the senior’s home can make the difference between life and death for the patient.

"Nice to Have" Features

Use Outside the Home - GPS

A growing trend among medical alert device suppliers is to include GPS capability into one or more of their devices. This allows a senior who is wearing such a device to leave their home to exercise outdoors, go shopping and visit friends and family. In the event of a medical emergency, the GPS location capability lets first responders know the exact location where the elder is experiencing the emergency. GPS does require connection to an available cellular network (AT&T, Verizon, etc.)

Family/Caregiver Communications

Some PERS devices include the ability to contact specific people, usually family caregivers, when an emergency occurs. For example, with some equipment fall detection results in contacting a call center along with sending text alerts to caregivers and family that there is an emergency. If nearby, a caregiver can arrive quickly to supply reassurance and aid before paramedics are there. While a GPS-enabled device is not absolutely necessary for seniors who are housebound due to illness or injury, it can assist responders in pinpointing exactly where in a house or surrounding yard an emergency has occurred.

Long Battery Life

Battery life in PERS devices can range from a day or two to several years, depending on the features of a specific device. Years-long lifetimes (i.e., the time between battery charging or replacement) are for devices that have limited functionality, such as those that only are active when an SOS button is pushed. Battery life in more advanced devices range from about a day to 8-10 days. GPS-enabled devices will use more power and hence have a shorter lifetime between charges since they are connected to Wi-Fi in a home or to a cellular network when outside the house.

Longer lifetimes are desirable, especially if battery charging may be difficult for a senior with cognitive, hand mobility or vision impairment. If a caregiver, for example, can visit the senior on a weekly basis, a seven-day or more battery lifetime allow them to charge the batteries for the senior.

All medical alert devices should have a low-battery warning mechanism to alert the senior and caregivers when the batteries need charging.

Other Considerations

Many seniors do not like the idea of wearing some kind of medical alert device because they feel it makes them look, well, “old.” Men and women who would wear a PERS device have different ideas of what physical configuration they prefer – women seem to like pendants more than men, for example. Then there is the consideration of ease of getting a unit on and off – pendants are better than a wristband for a senior with a hand dexterity problem such as arthritis.

 

Stylishness is another consideration. Women tend to be more style conscious then men and some medical alert manufacturers have begun to offer pendants with jewel-like looks. Men prefer wristbands that look like watches rather than a pendant around the neck; wristbands are also less conspicuous than a pendant that is worn outside clothing. If you are evaluating a PERS device for a senior loved one, talk to them and get their “buy in” on a particular style before you purchase one.

 

The living arrangements of a senior also play into the decision of which medical alert device is best for them. Seniors living alone need a more feature-rich device than those living with others. This is particularly true for seniors by themselves that have no nearby family or other caregivers, where extra features enhance their safety and comfort.

 

Choosing a PERS device for a senior loved one is not like going out and buying a new TV or cell phone. You need to discuss the various choices available in the marketplace with your senior, make sure that they have a full understanding of the look and features of any device you are considering purchasing, and have them agree that it is a good choice for their needs and desires. Of course, this is more difficult with a senior who has some level of cognitive impairment.

 

Remember – in many cases you, the caregiver, will be buying the PERS device but the senior will be the one wearing and using it.

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