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WebMD - Personal Medical Alarms

If You Fell and Couldn't Get Up, Could You Get Help?
Maybe a Portable Alarm Is Right for You.

By Susan A. Steeves
WebMD Medical News

"I've fallen, and I can't get up!" You probably haven’t taken those commercials too seriously, unless you happen to be one of the millions of Americans, especially senior citizens, who have found themselves in this frightening situation. But are those wearable alarms advertised really helpful?

Though experts agree that a wearable alarm system may not help all situations or be appropriate for all elderly people, it could be lifesaving for some.

Approximately 36 million people are taken to emergency rooms in the U.S. annually with injuries sustained in falls, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. It’s estimated that one-third of elderly people living at home and two-thirds of those living in assisted living facilities fall each year. These mishaps result directly in about 1,800 deaths and contribute to at least 9,500 fatalities.

"I see a lot of people who lie on the floor and can’t get help. You‘d think this would scare them," says Judy Farness, MSN, RN, RNP, assistant professor of geriatrics at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. "They tell me, ‘I dragged myself over to the phone and pulled the phone down,’ or ‘over to the door and open it and holler.’"

"About 30% of people over the age of 65 have a fall in a given year," says Bill Edwards, MSN, RNP, a project manager at the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute on Aging. "If they can’t get up, then a fall becomes even more serious because they can become dehydrated, which damages organs, or the injury itself becomes even more serious."

Edwards and his colleagues are studying falls in elderly and what interventions – such as exercise, vision testing, changes in medication, and changes in their environment – might make them less likely to take a spill. Edwards also once worked for some of the transportable alarm systems companies.

Both he and Farness say that, for many people, portable alarm systems can be lifesavers.

"They [alarms] can be helpful, and not just in the case of falls," Edwards tells WebMD. He says they could even be helpful in cases where a patient is paralyzed and needs help.

Whether the alarm is right for the individual depends partially on their mental and physical conditions and those of their caregivers, Edwards and Farness agree.

Edwards relates that half of the elderly people he visits forget to wear the alarm, and Alzheimer's disease patients might not remember how to use it. For others, physical problems could make it difficult to operate.

A personal alarm might even place a physically weaker caregiver at risk, if they attempt to come rescue and are injured themselves.

Damien Bodden, of the Palm Beach (Fla.) County Fire and Rescue Squad, says he knows that the alarms have helped the elderly in his community. Last year, the agency received 3,374 calls that were confirmed falls; 34 of those came from a "medical alert-type" company.

"The majority of our calls are from the elderly," Bodden says. "A lot of the people we see have the portable alarms." He explains that they seem to be helpful, because many of the calls they get are because people have been lucky – concerned neighbors call in or hear their elderly neighbor call out for help. What would happen if the neighbor is not around or just doesn’t hear you?

University of Pennsylvania’s Edwards says that in such cases, it’s sometimes "just fortunate that someone finds them."

So is a transportable alarm right for you or an elderly relative? To make that decision, you will have to consider the lifestyle of the person, their physical and mental abilities, the cost of the service, and what it provides.

LifeFone costs less than $1 a day for monitoring.

For that, a subscriber may list as many emergency contacts as they desire, such as neighbors, relatives, friends, and physicians. Also, each individual’s computer record includes any medical conditions and medications, according to Ron Maggio, the firm’s General Manager.

When someone pushes the button on the 1–inch square, 1–ounce device that can be worn as a necklace or bracelet, he or she is connected within 90 seconds to the company’s emergency response center. The operators have received three months of training in medical concerns of the elderly, medications, and stress management.

The operator will talk with the patient to determine the problem and then make the appropriate phone calls based on both the circumstances and the protocol that the subscriber and/or the subscriber’s family has established. If the situation needs immediate medical attention, for instance, if someone signals the center but is unable to explain to the operator what is wrong, then the person’s local emergency services squad is immediately dispatched, Maggio tells WebMD. "The speed of the answer is critical," he says. "It’s most important to allow seniors to live in their homes independently and to give the family peace of mind."

LifeFone also encourages its subscribers to use the device at least once a month just to check in with the center. They are not limited as to how many times they do this. Maggio says that most of their clients call at least once a week.

"A lot of our subscribers live alone. Being able to push the button to check in gives them some reassurance," he says, adding that the psychological boost this provides also contributes to their physical health.

The company also provides pamphlets and community seminars to teach people how to make changes in their physical environment and make certain lifestyle changes so that they can remain in their own homes longer.

Edwards and Farness tell WebMD that exercise is one of the most important ways to prevent falls. Exercise builds muscle strength and stamina, which help improve coordination and balance.

"Even people who have a lot of frailty can benefit from exercise in general," Edwards says. " It can be argued that inactivity is the third leading cause of death in the elderly."

Farness agrees. "If they could make exercise into a pill, I would," she says. "Even if they just walk once a day, that’s important."

Other advice from experts includes:

  • You should talk with your doctor about whether certain medications or medical conditions, including your vision and hearing, may be causing you to stumble or fall.
  • Check for stairs and railings that may be in disrepair and carpets that may have loose seams.
  • Get rid of throw rugs.
  • Add grab bars to your bathroom.
  • Don’t site on furniture that is so low that it’s difficult to sit down or get up.
  • Wear shoes that are comfortable and fit properly.