Safety First: Making Sense of Tech Solutions for Senior Safety

Published In Health & Safety

Do you worry that your aging mother may fall and hurt herself with no one is there to help her? Or maybe that your elderly father will wander off and no one knows where he went?

Worry no longer. Technology has come to the rescue.

With today’s technology, falls can be detected and help summoned immediately and wandering seniors can be tracked and located with no problem. Much of the newer technology for seniors and their caregivers is intended to keep seniors safe–and with good reason. Safety, especially involving falls, registers as a prime concern both with seniors and with their families and caregivers.

Statistics reinforce that concern. According to the National Center for Injury Prevention, more than 9 million people were treated in hospital emergency rooms for falls in 2010, the greatest number of them over 75. Statistics also suggest that between 30 and 40 percent of the over 65 population experience a fall every year. Falls and injuries due to falls are the leading cause of deaths due to injury. Age-related conditions–such as poor vision, osteoporosis, bad balance, and the side effects of some medications–increase the risk of falling.

Falls and Calls for Help: Checking on Safety and Well-Being

Given the preoccupation with safety, a multitude of tech tools help keep tabs on the safety and well-being of aging parents in real time, with particular attention to falls. Some of these technologies are wireless and/or phone-based, others are computer or internet-based. Most send alerts to caregivers or medical responders.

Not all of today’s technology that helps keep seniors safe qualifies as high tech, or even “new.” Strategically placed railings and grab bars and motion-activated lights have been around for years and early versions of PERS, or Personal Emergency Response Systems, came on the market in the 1990’s.

Though most still utilize a “panic” button to summon help, newer versions of the systems popularized by the “I’ve fallen and can’t get up” and “I live alone but I’m never alone” ads are smaller, waterproof, mobile and portable. Maybe the device with the “panic” button is worn as a pendant or on the wrist, clipped to a belt or slipped into a pocket.

With most systems, the call for help goes to an emergency response center that is manned 24/7 by trained personnel. The emergency responder immediately assesses the situation, via two-way voice communication when possible, and summons help, dispatching an ambulance or a fire and rescue team if necessary, and alerting caregivers and family members.

Some newer fall detection systems rely on motion detection monitors strategically placed in a senior’s living quarters, either wireless or hooked up through phone lines. Some of these motion detection systems are programmed to learn a senior’s activity patterns and send an alert to the emergency response center when, for example, a senior fails to wake up at the usual hour, misses a regular television show, or spends too much time in the bathroom.

Some systems also use automatic video monitoring, with cameras aimed at or near floor level to detect falls but avoid invasion of privacy issues. Activation of these monitoring systems makes two-way telephone communication possible so the response center can communicate with the senior who has fallen or may not be able to get to a phone. Absence of a voice response triggers an immediate emergency alert.

What About the Wandering Senior?

Most of the monitoring systems are range limited, so they may tell you when your aging father leaves home and gets beyond monitoring range, but it doesn’t tell you where he is going. That’s where GPS comes in. If he carries a cell phone with GPS, problem solved. But if he doesn’t take a cell phone or other GPS device, the problem remains. Some innovators have solved the GPS problem by embedding GPS trackers in insoles, reasoning that most people won’t wander away without their shoes. Using GPS, emergency responders and caregivers can locate the wandering, and possibly lost, senior.

Monitoring of Vital Signs

With safety monitoring and GPS in place, the next step to a senior’s safety and well-being is what has come to be known as Telecare, or Telemed, Telehealth and variations on that theme. This uses the same monitoring systems that detect falls to connect the senior and whatever is being monitored—and this can include, blood pressure, blood sugar, and vital signs—and delivers that information in real time to caregivers and a senior’s medical team, alerting them to any problems that may occur.

This particular feature is proving invaluable in caring for seniors who live alone, especially those in remote or less populated areas who don’t have close neighbors or families to check on them regularly and provide help.

Which System to Choose?

Once you decide that an emergency response system will ease your worries about the safety of your aging parents, the looming question becomes which one, or ones.

Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer. This kind of technology changes and improves rapidly and there’s little in the way of independent and up-to-date review to guide you, though you will find plenty of ads and offers to seduce you.

The Centers for Aging Services Technologies, or CAST, has a clearinghouse that brings together technologies from both for-profit and not-for–profit companies. The CAST clearinghouse may help you sort through the systems that are available.

Another group, Consumers Advocate, has reviewed what it considers the top 10 systems and offers links to each of these on its website. Another site that offers “unbiased” information about fall detection systems is Rating Lab, which also has a report that explains how the systems work and detect when a person has fallen, even if that person is unable to push the panic button and summon help.

As you sort through the available systems, you will note that Life Alert, one of the early PERS entrants, now offers a special app for your smartphone that will automatically dial a monitoring center when you need help, and home security system ADT, too, offers PERS.

Should the task of choosing a system seem overwhelming, you might check with your physician’s office, your geriatric care manager, or even seniors who have had experience with the systems to get their recommendations. The decision comes with a “buyer beware” caution as both the Senate Committee on Aging and AARP have warned of scams and misleading information, especially about costs involved. For many seniors cost, both one time and continuing, is an important consideration.

Wiring a home with motion detectors and /or investing in a mobile monitoring system also can be expensive so you need to be sure, at least as sure as possible, you are getting the desired safety for your investment. You do need to recognize, though, that no matter how many systems you use, safety can never been 100 percent guaranteed. You can only do the best that you can to keep your aging parents safe.

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