Medical Alert Monitoring

Sometimes, seniors need help getting out of a chair or out of bed. These are serious issues but don’t necessarily require emergency response. Other times, they’ve fallen and may need medical assistance. Medical alert monitoring is useful in both situations because it empowers seniors to seek help on their own terms.

Of course, unmonitored systems exist, but monitoring is safer and can cover all of a senior’s bases. Here’s a look at the various options for monitoring and what factors to consider when choosing among systems and companies.

Overview of Medical Alert Monitoring

Operators available around the clock communicate in real time with seniors who need help. Often, seniors wear a button and press it to summon this assistance. Monitoring base stations have buttons as well, and there are voice-activated medical alert buttons.

Thanks to advances in technology, seniors have many options for their monitoring equipment. They can use any of these devices:

  • Traditional landline or cellular medical alert system for home use
  • GPS-based wearable for mobile and home use
  • Smartwatch with GPS monitoring
  • Cellphone with GPS monitoring
  • Car medical alert devices for drivers
  • Buttons or pendants with fall detection

Smartwatches and cellphones can be especially appealing because they’re not obvious medical alert devices. Plus, they serve other purposes. However, they do have limitations such as no fall detection.

Why Monitoring Is Helpful

The reasons for monitoring aren’t always apparent, although many are. One obvious example: Seniors are at a higher risk of falls. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explain that more than 25% of seniors 65 or older fall every year. Just one fall can lead to an injury that dramatically decreases seniors’ quality of life.

Moreover, some seniors aren’t able to get up after a fall. They may have to wait hours or days for someone to chance by to help them. Medical alert monitoring gives seniors an easy way to summon immediate help from loved ones or paramedics. Quick assistance means faster treatment and a better overall prognosis.

Monitoring can also serve these purposes:

  • Track seniors prone to wandering (who may have dementia)
  • Extend by months or even years the length of time seniors can remain living at home
  • Provide help in situations such as heart attacks, falls, break-ins or fires
  • Provide help in non-emergency situations, like if a senior cannot get up from a chair or isn’t sure how to contact a family member
  • Grant flexibility for activities such as walking or hiking (even extremely active seniors benefit from monitoring!)
  • Relieve some of the load on caregivers
  • Protect seniors in the shower
  • Safeguard senior drivers and others on the road
  • Give an additional layer of protection to seniors taking multiple medications or recovering from surgery/hospitalization

To explain the last point a bit more, medications can cause seniors to feel dizzy or disoriented. These seniors may be more likely to fall.

In short, medical alert monitoring provides invaluable peace of mind—both to seniors and their loved ones.

Major Difference between GPS Monitoring and Home Monitoring

GPS monitoring is for seniors no matter where they are—watching TV on their couch, gardening in their yard, sleeping, hiking or traveling. It’s often called mobile monitoring or on-the-go monitoring because the GPS enables operators to quickly pinpoint a senior’s location. GPS monitoring tends to be somewhat pricier than dedicated at-home monitoring (about $10 to $20 more a month).

At-home monitoring is popular among seniors who spend much or all of their time at home. Alternatively, it can suit seniors who do go out but always with someone(s) who can help them. Home monitoring systems are landline-based or cellular-based. Landline systems typically cost a few dollars less per month than the cellular systems.

The Steps in Monitoring

  1. When seniors (or their family members) set up a monitoring system, they input information such as contact names and data, where any lockboxes or hidden keys are located, quickest ways to the home, alternative routes, how seniors want emergency and non-emergency calls to be handled, and the names of the people who may be allowed to monitor their whereabouts. If seniors ever have to summon help, operators can use this information to streamline the response process.
  2. A senior who needs help presses a button to reach an operator. Many seniors wear their buttons on wristbands or lanyards, although they can be carried in pockets or purses. Buttons can also be positioned on walls. Base stations for home systems have buttons too.
  3. The senior’s location and the information inputted earlier are transmitted to an emergency operator. The operator works to establish two-way communication. Operator response times vary, and it can take an operator as long as a minute to respond. Fortunately, the wait time is often less.
  4. If seniors are able to communicate, they tell the operator what’s going on (they at least convey if it’s an emergency or non-emergency situation). Seniors can make specific requests, or the operator can follow pre-established steps.
  5. If seniors are unable to communicate, operators follow the protocol that the senior set up for this type of situation. Sometimes, it’s to send emergency responders. Many times, it entails the operator contacting the senior’s family members, neighbors or friends in order of preference. Once a designated person has been reached, that person takes over (usually going to see the senior immediately).
  6. If no one can be reached or if the situation is an emergency requiring immediate attention, the operator sends emergency services.

Another thing: Some monitoring devices come with fall detection (about $10 more a month). A senior who falls may be rendered unconscious or be too injured to press a button. Fall detection automatically notes that a fall seems to have occurred. It starts the process of connecting with an operator.

Fall detection is not 100% effective. For example, it may not register each and every fall, and it can mistake some movements for a fall (false alarm). Normal protocol is for operators to call a designated number such as the senior’s cellphone to check that a false alarm hasn’t occurred. Also, seniors must wear their fall detection pendants as a necklace, so no putting it on a wrist or in a pocket.

Fall detection does provide another layer of security if seniors cannot speak. However, because of its flaws, seniors who are able to do so should press their help button instead of depending on fall detection to initiate a response. It also means a quicker response since operators don’t have to make a phone call to check on the senior.

Last but not least, it’s important for seniors to test their system once a month. Some companies/devices have specific buttons for testing, while others prefer seniors to press a button like they would if they needed help.

Monitoring Center Considerations

Live operators are what differentiate monitored systems from their unmonitored counterparts. These operators work in monitoring centers, also called call centers. When you explore specific monitoring companies, keep a few things in mind:

  • 24/7 operator availability is essential
  • Help in both emergencies and non-emergencies
  • The number of call centers
  • Where the centers are located (should be in the United States and have at least two locations in case a disaster impacts one)
  • Redundant backup systems for power, energy and other utilities
  • Operator response times
  • Languages available (many companies offer third-party language services, but ask about your specific language)
  • Monitoring center certifications and what each certification means

The Cost of Medical Alert Monitoring

Basic monitoring costs about $25 to $45 a month, depending on whether the system is for dedicated home use or is GPS-based (higher cost for GPS). Fall detection usually costs about $10 extra per month. Options such as protection plans, lockboxes and additional buttons add a few dollars to the bottom line. The medical alert equipment is included in the monitoring charges (with a few exceptions where you buy the equipment upfront).

Many companies offer multiple pricing tiers for their monitoring services. For example, GreatCall’s health and safety packages can include 5Star urgent response, the GreatCall Link app for family members, product replacement and the urgent care service for 24/7 contact with medical professionals. The more features or services that are chosen, the higher the price.

Billing tends to be monthly, quarterly, semiannual or annual. Opting for annual saves the most money overall and often comes with a few extra features such as free shipping and free wearables not included with monthly. Prorated pricing is generally available. You get your money back if you must return the equipment and cancel service earlier than you planned.

Either seniors or their family members can be responsible for paying the bill. For instance, it’s common for adult children to sign their parents up for monitoring and to handle the billing and the payments themselves.

Free trials and money-back guarantees are commonly available. Reputable companies don’t make you sign long-term contracts, so don’t sign any. Many companies offer discounts for seniors in the same household (for example, two GPS devices at a somewhat discounted price).

What Is Included with Monitoring

As touched on above, monitoring is usually available in a few pricing tiers. For example, the Bay Alarm Medical in-home system offers these features for a higher price: 24/7 monitoring, four wall buttons, lockbox service, automatic fall detection and free shipping. You may or may not want all of these features.

Much of the time, monitoring includes multilingual services. Still, if you have language needs other than English, ask customer service specifically about your language before you sign up for monitoring.

Each monitoring system is different. Some such as Family Guardian are high-tech and more comprehensive than other systems. Family Guardian includes three in-home safety sensors that help family members track seniors’ activity levels and movements, among other things. It can be a good option for seniors prone to wandering or who are frequently sick.

A basic home system has two major parts: the base station and the button(s). Fall detection is optional. The base station can be cellular or connected to a landline. It features a prominent emergency/call/help button, a reset button and two-way communications. It may have a display for time, temperature, cellular strength and other information. As for the second part, most buttons are wearable. Wall buttons and voice-activated buttons are available as well. Wearable home and GPS buttons are almost always safe for use in the shower and for washing hands. For rain, too.

Most GPS systems are all-in-one devices. They consist of a button, two-way communications and GPS location tracking. Some devices/pricing plans let approved family members see where seniors are. Fall detection is optional.

Monitoring for drivers is limited, but Bay Alarm Medical sells a good product. It’s a GPS-capable vehicle plug-in that can detect crashes. It also offers two-way communication, among other features. The companion app allows drivers and their family members to review trip information, routes, real-time vehicle locations and driver profiles.

Smartwatch and cellphone monitoring includes two-way communications and at least two emergency buttons, one external and one on the screen. The smartwatches may have a focus such as fitness tracking or communications and tracking for caregivers. The cellphones can be smartphones or flip phones, with voice, text and data plans available.

Unmonitored Systems

Unmonitored systems have these major disadvantages when compared with monitored systems:

  • No operator to discern between emergencies and situations requiring less-intensive attention
  • No customized help depending on the particulars of a situation and the level of assistance needed
  • No direct communication
  • First responders may not have information such as a senior’s blood type that would be inputted when setting up many monitored systems
  • No GPS

With unmonitored systems, seniors don’t connect to a live operator. Rather, they program a contacts list. When they press the button, the device contacts people according to the list. The numbers can be for family members, neighbors and even 911. A few systems do enable seniors to communicate with the person who has been contacted. Mostly, though, a pre-recorded message about a possible emergency plays. Seniors who don’t program 911 into their system at some point on the list run the risk of help never coming.

Unmonitored systems cost an upfront purchase or lease fee, and there are no monthly costs. Basic models go for about $300.

Tips for Deciding on Medical Alert Monitoring

When seniors or their families look for medical alert monitoring, their main considerations tend to be these:

  • How many people on the system (one senior or two spouses, etc.)
  • Purpose of system
  • Which wearables the senior prefers (wristbands may be less obvious than pendants)
  • Special features or needs (such as fall detection or location tracking)
  • Type of system (home only, GPS, smartwatch, car alert, cellphone)
  • Language needs
  • Cost of system

One family may decide that a basic at-home system meets their needs very well, while another family may opt to get their senior a smartwatch. The choice of a system depends greatly on seniors’ preferences and what they are comfortable with.

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