March 19th, 2011 at 2:07 am
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Personal medical alarms: older technology but effective for many

by Carol Bursack

The variety of technological devices available to monitor seniors and other potentially at risk people is quite amazing. Some of these devices monitor a person’s movements with strategically placed cameras. Other devices rely on sensors placed around the home. For many elders, sensors that send signals marking whether medication is taken on time, or if and when a person uses the bathroom, deliver more oversight than necessary, and cameras can seem even more invasive.

A solution for the multitude of seniors who need some way to summon emergency help, but don’t want or need a constant “nanny,” may be a personal medical alarm. Personal medical alarms are likely the oldest form of home monitoring technology. They continue to be, in my opinion, one of the best, as long as the person being monitored is cognitively stable.

Personal medical alarms:  a good way to maintain independence

Personal medical alarms are worn by the elder as a watch type device, or around the neck on a chain. If a person falls or has another health emergency, he or she presses the button on the device. This signals a monitor in the home to call a dispatch center. The dispatcher on duty at the center then calls the contact person listed for that number. I employed this type of system for three of the seven elders I cared for, so I was the contact person called when help was needed, by my uncle, my neighbor and my mother. These personal medical alarms helped my elders stay independent longer than they would have otherwise.

For people with Alzheimer’s or other dementias, personal alarms aren’t always useful, as they do depend on the ability of the user to know that he or she has to push a button to get help. For that reason, we never considered this an option for my dad. But then, after Dad’s failed brain surgery, he needed more care than he could get at home or in an assisted living center, anyway. For those in a nursing home, the alarms aren’t necessary, of course. The residents already have the help they need.

Medical alarms can’t replace human care

I believe personal medical alarms are still one of the best bets out there for people who are relatively capable, but who need a type of backup system to summon help if necessary. For those who can’t remember how to use such an alarm, more help is needed. Sophisticated technology through computers monitored by family members or an emergency center is needed for anyone with dementia who still lives alone. My personal preference for these folks is, in addition to technology, some form of human care, such as in-home services or assisted living centers. Monitoring technology is often used in assisted living and works very well. In the home, it’s good to have a person to check on the individual being monitored, just for human contact if nothing else. Technology is wonderful, but it shouldn’t replace human presence.

Posted in Caregiving, Caring At Home, Technology | 4 Comments »

4 Comments to “Personal medical alarms: older technology but effective for many”

  1. Lisa

    Thanks for the very informative article about personal medical alarms. I agree, personal medical alarms are a good solution for seniors who may need to summon emergency help but don’t want or need a constant “nanny.”

    When my mother took a bad fall a few months back and wound up in the hospital, I knew I needed to do something to ensure her safety. We decided on a personal emergency response system because it allowed her to live independently but also gave me piece of mind knowing she was safe. Of course, like you mentioned, technology shouldn’t replace human presence but it can be a good solution for seniors in an emergency. Thanks again for the informative post.

  2. Carol,

    Thanks for this fantastic article regarding personal medical alarms! It is very true that they are not by any means an entire solution. Medical alarms should be used in conjunction with caregivers (either professional or familial) who check in from time to time and are available to help with daily chores or tasks that the elderly individual may not be able to handle on their own anymore. Doing research must precede the purchase of a medical alert to determine whether or not the system is right for you and the elder you care for. Companies also will typically offer other options like a mobile device that tracks the senior using GPS, or an inactivity monitor that requires the elderly person to respond to an alert sounded at predetermined intervals. When you are looking into a way to keep the senior active and independent but safe, medical alert technology is definitely a fine option for doing so, along with the care and attention of a caregiver, of course.

  3. Very good points, Bob. Choices keep expanding.
    Thanks for the information.

  4. Bob Finnie


    You have made excellent comments regarding personal medical alarms. They are a very good addition to human caregiving.

    Also, depending on the loved one, a personal medical alarm (“help I’ve fallen” type product) does not have to go to a local dispatch center with a monthly fee. There are products that dial nearby family members, friends, or neighbors for assistance. You have the product cost only (most are under $100). And the caregiver puts in the telephone numbers (usually five telephone numbers) to be called.


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