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Medical alert systems can help keep older people safe

Shannon Gettier is manager of Griswold Home Care Harford and Cecil Counties.
Shannon Gettier is manager of Griswold Home Care Harford and Cecil Counties. (HANDOUT)

Medical alert systems, which give people a line to paramedics when there is an emergency, are good for the elderly, disabled and people who are prone to falling. Shannon Gettier, manager of Griswold Home Care of Harford and Cecil counties, talks about the different types of medical alert systems.

What is a medical alert system?

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A medical alert system provides an emergency button for elderly and disabled individuals who may need help at some point while they are alone. It is a combination of hardware and software that sends an emergency signal at the press of a button to the appropriate personnel when a person requires attention. Medical alert systems are also known as personal emergency response systems.

Who should get a medical alert system?

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More often than not, they are used by individuals who are either elderly or disabled and need to be able to quickly contact emergency responders in the case of a fall or a life-threatening problem. Anybody at greater-than-average risk of falling in the home is a candidate, particularly if they are unlikely to get up from the fall on their own. People who have difficulty walking without assistance are especially in danger of falling. Even if they don’t live alone, but don’t always have someone at home with them, there is risk of serious injury that a system can mitigate.

How can families tell if their loved one needs a medical alert system?

Families should look carefully at loved ones and see if they are stable and steady on their feet. They should talk with their relative or their doctor to see whether they are prone to dizziness or fainting or at risk for either because of a medical condition or medication. Past history of falling is also a very good indicator. If your loved one isn’t forthcoming about a fall they suffered, you can observe whether they have any visible bruises on their body when you visit them and ask how they got them. But before deciding on a medical alert system, we encourage families to start by ensuring the home is as safe as possible.

What are the different kinds of medical alert systems?

Companies now offer motion-sensitive necklaces that can detect a fall automatically and call for help if the user is unable to push the button. Some offer extra help buttons at an additional cost, often in the form of waterproof wristbands or pendants that can go anywhere you go. Wall-mounted buttons are also available for high-risk fall areas like the kitchen or bathroom.

GPS-equipped devices are useful in case of an emergency away from the home and the base unit. If the button is pressed, the monitoring company can track where you are and provide emergency relief.

How much do these systems cost and does insurance generally cover it?

Expect to pay around a dollar a day, or $25 to $30 a month, for a reliable service. Some companies charge extra for shipping, installation, or a consult, but many do not. And installation is often easy to do on your own.

Contracts are a thing of the past when it comes to medical alert companies. Since you never know how long you will need the service or if you will even like a particular company, only sign up for a medical alert system that lets you cancel the service at any time.

Insurance does not generally cover the cost of medical alert systems. However, users should contact their specific insurer to see if they are eligible to be reimbursed.

What should families consider when choosing a medical alert system?

The reputation of the company is probably one of the most important things to look at. Some monitoring centers are Underwriters Laboratories (UL)-certified, the acknowledged gold standard for safety and reliability. Choosing a UL-certified center will give you peace of mind that it will be there when and if you need it. You should also check the Better Business Bureau for any bad marks and ask acquaintances for recommendations. Chances are, someone in your life has had experiences with medical alert systems.

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Also, consider reliability. Range is important. Most base stations have a range of 400 feet, so it can be activated anywhere on a person’s property. If you live a very active life, choose a system with long range to protect against falls outside in the yard.

Battery life is important too. Most systems are chargeable to keep a constant battery life, but it’s important to make sure that the system you choose has a backup battery system in case of power failure or a power outage. Some alert system batteries only last a few months, while others last several years. If the battery runs low, it should clearly notify you and the monitoring center so it can be replaced before it stops functioning properly.

Most medical alert systems have their own emergency response centers staffed with trained emergency operators available 24 hours a day to respond to calls. However, some do not. Make sure that whichever system you choose has this capability, as it is essential to the security of those living alone. Along with a 24-hour monitoring system, you want to make sure you have access to customer service and technical support whenever you might need it. Don’t sign up with a company that has limited customer service hours, as this can cause frustration down the road.

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