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Living Alone: A Guide to Medical-Alert Systems

Fees · Products · Services

Personal emergency response system, or “medical alert,” devices can help senior citizens to maintain their independence later in life, but we’re concerned that some people are scared into making a purchase by fear-based ads. Nonetheless, we’re excited about research that’s underway to make the devices capable of predicting problems.

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It used to be that after you reached a certain age, the remainder of your golden years likely would be spent living in a family member’s home or in a nursing home. However, in recent years, increasing numbers of senior citizens choose to live out their life in their own home.

A 2011 survey (most recent data available) by AARP and National Conference of State Legislatures shows that about 90 percent of seniors want to avoid a nursing or retirement home, although 82 percent recognize that they might require assistance or continuing care in retirement.

The ability for senior citizens to live in their own homes is known as aging in place. A wide range of information, products and services now make it possible for seniors to do just that.

One such tool is a personal emergency response system (PERS). These so-called medical-alert devices can help a senior citizen to get assistance quickly in the event of a health emergency. These devices, which first were marketed in the United States in the 1980s as a way for senior citizens to call for help when they were unable to reach the telephone, now can be used independent of a phone line. In some cases, the devices can detect if a senior citizen falls and place a call for help automatically if the fall renders the user unable to speak or activate the device.

We believe that a PERS device is a useful product. However, even the best PERS devices have drawbacks. Worse, manufacturers’ use of scare tactics prompts some consumers to buy a PERS device, for either themselves or a loved one, without fully understanding the product. Meanwhile, researchers are working on a new generation of PERS devices that eventually could alert health-care providers that a fall or other health emergency is imminent.

KEEPING TABS. Most PERS devices that are available to buy or rent consist of two basic parts—a base station, which plugs into a phone jack or relies on a cellular signal, and a wireless remote that typically is worn as a pendant around the neck or on the wrist. Pushing a button on the pendant activates the base station to place a call for help, although many companies also provide pendants that are designed to be spoken into directly. In most cases, the person who’s in need of help communicates with a representative from a monitoring service through a microphone that’s located on the base station or the pendant. Base stations can pick up sound 150–1,500 feet away, depending on the product. The representative assesses the situation and gets the distressed person the necessary help.

Most companies provide three types of systems: traditional, home-based cellular and mobile.

Click chart above to view full presentation

Click chart above to view full presentation

The traditional system is “the bread and butter of this industry,” according to Alan Wu, who is a spokesperson for Bay Alarm Medical, which makes four different PERS devices. These devices require a home phone line and an electric outlet, but a backup battery keeps units operational for 24–96 hours in the event of a power outage. The average cost of a traditional PERS device and basic service is roughly $30 per month.

However, landlines are being phased out. AT&T, for example, announced in 2013 that it would end landline service by 2020. More PERS devices than ever before are designed to be compatible with cable-based or Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephone services. Cable-based and VoIP services typically are less expensive than traditional landline service is, but Chris Hendriksen, who is the CEO of VRI, which sells PERS devices, points out that cable-based and VoIP services can slow during high-volume periods. Such a time is difficult to predict, he says, but the result for someone who has a PERS device is that a call for help could be delayed or even dropped.

Cellular PERS devices emerged on the market about 4 years ago, according to Harry Wang, who is an analyst for market-research company Parks Associates. These PERS devices work much the same way that conventional systems do; they just don’t require a landline. The cost of the necessary cellular service to connect with the monitoring company is included in the rental price of the unit, which typically costs $10 more per month than does a traditional or cable/VoIP PERS device. Wang says cellular PERS devices are subject to the strength of the cellular signal that’s in your home.

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