With research suggesting that remaining in your own home rather than moving into a care home could help you to live longer, many elderly people are showing preferences towards independent living. However, with conditions such as dementia and poor mobility being more prevalent in the elderly, independence among the older generations can sometimes increase the risk of poor health, accident, and injury, and can induce feelings of worry and upset in close family members and friends, who strive to be able to provide a happy compromise between safety and freedom.
More than 40 percent of the UK’s 65+ population live alone, and the good news is that there are already many pieces of state-of-the-art technology available for the elderly that can facilitate independent living, with one of the most notable being high quality stairlifts that can enable those with reduced mobility and a high risk of falls to move around their home safely. These pieces of equipment are being supported by medical alert systems that can give families peace of mind that their elderly parents are in good hands and have access to assistance should they require it.
Medical alert systems provide peace of mind for the elderly and their loved ones. Image by iStock
In the UK, many medical alert systems are accredited by the Telecare Services Authority (TSA), which provides a set of standards that telecare and telehealth devices must adhere to. There are around 1.7 million users of TSA-approved equipment, and more than 135 approved call centres across the country. Many users struggle with poor eyesight, diminishing memory, and a high risk of falls that can increase the chance of hospital admissions. The overall aim of the devices is ensure elderly people have a good support system in case of emergency, while still enabling them to carry out their regular activities of daily living (ADLs) as independently as possible.
The existing market for aids that support and facilitate independent living is continuously expanding, with many more medical alert systems being introduced that can let us – or the emergency services – know if something’s not quite right, or if our relatives are feeling distressed. If you’re a little overwhelmed looking at all the different types of system available, here’s a handy overview that outlines the benefits of each system.
Emergency Medical Alert Systems
Automatic Response Pendants
Automatic response pendants are typically worn around the neck and are fitted with advanced technology that detects heavy impacts which may suggest that the user has suffered a fall. Upon impact, the pendant will automatically connect to the alarm company, where an operator can determine the most appropriate course of action, including dispatching emergency services.
The advantage of these systems is that it can ensure elderly people are given any necessary checks following a fall to determine whether or not an underlying injury has been sustained. Many elderly people fail to report a fall, with more than half claiming that the fall was only minor. However, as the Royal Voluntary Service states, ‘due to the lower expectations that many older people have of their health, some may not report medical problems that would actually require specialist support or advice’. As with any automated system, there is a chance that false alarms could occur which could upset an elderly, so take this into consideration when choosing a medical alarm.
Help boxes are usually fixed to the wall, and can be placed in areas of the home that are deemed to have the highest risk factors, such as the bathroom, kitchen, and bedroom. The box contains an emergency button that can be pressed whenever an elderly person feels that they require urgent assistance. They will be connected to the alarm company, who can determine the course of action.
(Image Source: Flickr)
The advantage of help boxes is that they’re not quite as prominent as pendants which must be worn at all times, allowing a greater level of freedom and flexibility. This means that they particularly suit higher functioning individuals who require just minimal support – they’re a bit like having a safety net and can significantly boost confidence. They also, on average, cost a little less than the more advanced technology like automated response systems, for example. Of course, there is a downside – that an elderly person may fall and be unable to reach the help box, or become unconscious. If your parent is deemed to be at a high risk of falls, these systems may not be the most suitable option.
GPS systems can be worn by an elderly person, which enables them to be tracked whenever they leave the house. These types of systems are typically much more informal – they will not be connected to an alarm company or operator. Instead, it is usually the responsibility of the family to regularly monitor location, and ensure that their relatives are remaining safe when out and about.
There is a very obvious advantage to GPS systems, and that’s that the elderly user is encouraged to retain a healthy and active social life with friends. A GPS system is a good choice for very social people, and can also prove to have benefits for dementia sufferers who may become lost or confused if they experience a very aggressive episode while out of the house. Some elderly people may feel that a GPS system infringes their privacy so be sure to take your relatives wishes into consideration when choosing a medical alert system. Also be aware that GPS systems rely upon satellite data, so the system may not be able to pinpoint an exact location in very densely covered areas like parks.
Passive monitoring systems are some of the most high tech medical alert systems available. They can be programmed to understand normal behaviours and respond if the user deviates from a standard routine. Some of the most popular passive monitoring systems are bed occupancy devices that can alert an alarm company operative if the user hasn’t awoke by the specific time in the morning.
One of the main advantages of passive monitoring is that it provides extra peace of mind for families with more advanced conditions. Around 20 percent of medical alert systems are purchased by someone that lives from the user, according to reports, which demonstrates how important it is for people to have complete peace of mind that their elderly relatives are in safe hands. It also doesn’t require manual operation, which is a big advantage for high risk individuals. Something to consider is that these devices can sometimes restrict more spontaneous users by forcing them to adhere to a consistent routine, and may infringe on an individual’s privacy.
Telehealth systems are designed for elderly people whose health conditions require consistent monitoring, and yet are still considered to be healthy and mentally capable of living independently. What these systems do is monitor aspects such as blood pressure which could lead to a heart attack. Data is transmitted to a trained nursing team who can provide care intervention if necessary.
Telehealth systems are a relatively new introduction to the medial alert market, but research is already showing just how beneficial they can be. The TSA reports that telehealth systems have overall resulted in a 15 percent reduction is A&E visits, a 20 percent reduction in A&E admissions, and a 45 percent reduction in mortality rates. One of the primary advantages is that it can give elderly people a better understanding of their health requirements, and encourages them to take better care of themselves. A potential disadvantage of telehealth systems is that it could breakdown the relationship between elderly person and carer, with one-on-one attention replaced by technology.
Image by Garry Knight
How to Choose a Medical Alert System
If you think that a medical alert system would enable an elderly parent, friend, or relative to remain in their home and live safely and happily, you may be ready to start looking into purchasing a system. But which system is right for you and your family? Here are some aspects to take into consideration before committing to a specific medical alert system:
Ease of Use
Consider your parent’s specific needs, and whether they would be able to easily operate a certain type of medical alert system. For example, if they have suffered a stroke in the past and have limited use of their hands, or if they have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and struggle with dexterity then an automated system might be easier for them to use than a manual system.
Is your relative already quite independent, enjoying getting out and about to meet with friends or go for a walk? Make sure to take this into account when choosing a medical alert system. Base units that are installed in the home usually do not cover distances over 400 metres, so if your parent enjoys visiting neighbours a few doors down the road, a GPS system could prove to be beneficial.
If your elderly parent has an emergency (or a false alarm), who do you want the system to contact in the first instance? Some systems will automatically connect to the alarm company’s call centre where an operative will determine whether further action is necessary. Others, such as telehealth systems, connect directly to a nursing team who can monitor health information.
Is the medical alert system you’re considering approved by the Telecare Services Association? While this isn’t a legal requirement for alarm companies, what this tells you is that the operatives that will respond to your parent’s call for help will need to adhere to specific standards and work according to a code of conduct, so you can be sure your relatives are in good hands when they’re most vulnerable.
Available on the NHS?
Some local authorities may deem a medical alert system to be necessary to meet your parent’s assessed needs. This means that some systems might be supplied free of charge, which can be a significant advantage for many families. It’s worth chatting with your local authority to see if your relative meets the eligibility criteria, and discuss which specific systems can be provided.
Alarm systems allow for an active social life. Image by The Arches
A medical alert system can help to transform not only your parent’s life, but your life, too. The founder of one of the UK’s most popular devices puts it like this – ‘it helps relieve the burden on ordinary families, who are often caught in a balancing act between allowing their parents or grandparents to retain their independence by being on hand, but then losing their own independence in the process’. Ultimately, medical alert systems are designed to improve quality of life for elderly people and their families, and allow more people to remain in their own home.
Authored by Harold H. Rigby, a lifestyle journalist and expert on issues faced by retired people.