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CONNECT TO | Research & Resources
December 2010

Medical alarm systems
Helping older adults remain independent longer

Most older adults would prefer to remain independent in their own homes for as long as possible. However, what happens when an older adult falls, has a heart attack, stroke or any medical emergency? What if he or she is home alone and cannot get to a telephone to dial for help?

Medical alarm systems

For elderly people who live alone, becoming incapacitated and unable to get help usually marks the end of their ability to live independently, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. More than 33 percent of accidents and falls involving people over age 65 occur at home, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A medical alarm system provides around-the-clock monitoring, summoning help in the event of an emergency. When help is needed, the older adult simply presses the alert button without needing to reach the telephone, and help is on the way.

Emergency response systems have three components: a small radio transmitter that is a help button carried or worn by the user, a console or base station connected to the user's telephone and an emergency response center that monitors calls. The console automatically dials the central monitoring station, even if the phone is in use or off the hook. The console has a two-way speaker, so the emergency response center operator and the older adult can hear each other. The operator will determine the situation and notify the appropriate emergency personnel, as well as family, friends and neighbors.

Installing a medical alert system usually is as easy as plugging in an answering machine and does not require any professional setup. When shopping for an emergency response system, industry experts advise you consider several factors:

Price - Medical alert companies charge a monthly fee for monitoring services. Compare pricing, features and servicing of each system. Also, ask if the price is fixed or if it may increase in the future.

Hidden costs - Older adults should not have to pay for the transmitter or monitoring console. The systems should be included as part of the monthly fee.

Contracts - Caregivers and their aging parents should only sign up with a company that lets them cancel the service at any time with no penalties and no return shipping costs. Read the agreement carefully before signing.

Experience - How long has the company been in business?

Portability - Can the system be used when the older adult is away from home? Some companies offer a small base unit that is the size of an answering machine.

Ease of use - Is the emergency button large and easy to see and press? Are there any complicated instructions or other features that might be hard to operate?

Waterproof equipment - Most accidents happen in the bathroom. Make sure the emergency transmitter button can be worn in the bath or shower.

Trained operators - Find out what kind of training the monitoring center staff receives. In an emergency, when every second counts, you will want qualified care specialists.

Hours - Make sure the monitoring center and customer support are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Testing - Your emergency response company should test the system on a regular basis to make sure it is functioning properly.

Repairs - Make sure your system includes repair and replacement service.

Medical alert systems can give independence to older adults who are at risk for injuries and accidents that happen at home, giving security and peace of mind to both older adults and their loved ones. They also grant family and friends a greater sense of freedom, knowing that they will be contacted immediately if an incident occurs.

Connect to More
Research & Resources

Reports on Medicaid eligibility standards and caregiving in Medicare
The Public Policy Institute at AARP released two reports with important information for and about caregivers. "Access to Long-Term Services and Supports: A 50-State Survey of Medicaid Financial Eligibility Standards" surveyed state Medicaid financial eligibility standards for nursing home and home- and community-based waiver services for older person and adults with disabilities. The report explains differences in how states treat assets and income both before and after qualifying for Medicaid. "Trends in Family Caregiving and Paid Home Care for Older People with Disabilities in the Community: The National Long-Term Care Survey," a nation-wide survey of Medicare beneficiaries age 65 and older, compares caregiving trends from 1994 to 2004. Women continued to do the majority of caregiving work in 2004, with wives representing 57 percent of all caregiving spouses, and daughters representing almost two-thirds of caregiving children in both 1994 and 2004.

Costs for facility care are up while home- and community-based care remain steady
The 2010 MetLife Market Survey of Nursing Home, Assisted Living, Adult Day Services and Home Care Costs found that the national average daily rate for a private room in a nursing home is $229, while a semi-private room is $205, up from $219 and $198 respectively in 2009. The national average monthly base rate in an assisted living community rose from $3,131 in 2009 to $3,293 in 2010. The national average hourly rates for home health aides ($21) and homemakers ($19), and daily rates for adult day services ($67), were unchanged from the previous year.