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The Ohio Department of Aging

Ohio Department of Aging Boomerang: It all comes back to you!

Boomerang: It all comes back to you!

My Family - December 2010

"Help, I've fallen and I can't get up!"
Medical alert systems' image and capabilities have changed a lot in 20 years

In 1990, it was nearly impossible to turn on the TV without seeing the now iconic commercial featuring an elderly woman on her bathroom floor, calling out: "I've fallen and I can't get up!" Despite the ad's campiness, it put a face to a very real risk that seniors face, especially those living alone. The utterance soon became a pop-culture catch phrase and helped push a multibillion-dollar industry into the forefront. Today's home medical alert systems are sophisticated and use the latest technology to help ensure the safety of our loved ones.

 Today's home medical alert systems are sophisticated and use the latest technology to help ensure the safety of our loved ones.Invented in Germany during the 1970s, medical alert systems were designed for one simple task: to allow someone in danger to summon help at home, no matter where in that dwelling he or she may be. For older adults, the ability to get help when they are unable to get to a phone can be the difference between life and death.

At its most basic, an alert system consists of a device that connects to the owner's phone line and a wearable, wireless transmitter that usually takes the form of a pendant or bracelet. In the event of a household accident, such as a fall, that renders the wearer unable to make it to the phone, he can summon help with just the push of a button. The least expensive systems dial 9-1-1 and allow the person to communicate with an emergency operator. The operator will identify his needs and dispatch the appropriate personnel to respond.

But many of today's advanced systems take full advantage of available technology. Some offer live, 24/7 monitoring. Instead of automatically dialing 9-1-1, these systems connect the wearer to an emergency response center. Professionals at the center can communicate with the person to determine her needs and can present options such as summoning emergency crews or contacting her friends or family members to come help. A monitored system typically costs more than a basic system and includes ongoing monitoring fees, but provides the owner with more flexibility and allows her to tailor the assistance to best suit her needs and preferences.

Some systems also can link to other devices in your home for more complete protection. Depending on the system, you may be able to get a smoke or carbon monoxide detector that communicates with the emergency alert system and notifies the response center if there is a detection. Similarly, many systems can be integrated seamlessly into home security systems. Some systems offer sensors in rooms of the home that allow the response center and family members to monitor temperature and motion, among other factors that may indicate a problem, via a secure internet connection.

Emergency alert systems offer great flexibility in price, service and ease of use. Here are few things to consider when deciding which type of system is right for you or a loved one.

  • Price. The actual system hardware may be a one-time expense (though some vendors may offer financing plans). If the system provides live emergency response center support, there will likely be a monthly monitoring fee. Ask if this fee is fixed or if it may increase in the future.
  • Contracts. Avoid signing a contract that obligates you to stay with a service for a pre-determined period and carries expensive fees to quit. You should sign up only with a company that lets you cancel the service at any time with no penalties or return shipping costs.
  • Warranty. Does the purchase price include repair and replacement service should the equipment stop working? Carefully consider the costs and coverage of an extended warranty if you are asked to purchase one.
  • Upgradeability. Ask if the system is upgradeable should you decide you want additional features or hardware in the future.
  • Full-house accessibility. Does the system work in every room in the house, as well as anywhere on the property? Is the transmitter button waterproof so it can be used in the bath or shower?
  • Compatibility. Most systems require a traditional, land-line phone service to work. Some are compatible with cellular phone networks or Internet-based phone services, but may charge an extra fee.
  • Battery backup. If you live in an area that experiences a lot of power outages or lightning activity, make sure you get a system with a battery backup.
  • Testing. Your emergency response system operator should test the system regularly to make sure it is functioning properly.
  • Portability. Is the equipment capable of being transported and used away from home, such as when traveling? Also, if the individual moves, will the monitoring service transfer to the new address?