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The New and Improved Medical Alert Devices

Once the punchline of comics, today's versions are smarter than ever

By Heidi Raschke

“I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” It was the catchphrase of a low-budget TV commercial that launched medical alert devices into our pop-culture consciousness.

But while the phrase became one of the go-to punchlines of the 1990s and the commercial inspired countless parodies, the push-button system worn around the neck and used to call for help in an emergency was no joke. Such medical alert systems addressed a real need for an increasing number of older people living alone.

That need is only growing as more people opt to live independently into their 80s and beyond. And in these days of wearable technology — when half the people you meet have a Fitbit activity tracker on their wrist — the future is brighter than ever for seniors who want to remain active, independent and safe as long as possible. And the devices are smarter than ever.

The Future of Wearables

Nick Padula, senior director of business development for Philips Lifeline (the largest provider of medical alert devices), likes to talk about a world in the not-so-distant-future in which seniors, their family caregivers and their clinical caregivers will use “wearables” to do everything from remember medications and monitor vital functions to prevent falls and anticipate looming health crises.

In the meantime, the company’s Go Safe auto-alert fall detection system represents the latest in medical alert devices. Like early push-button gadgets linked to a land line, the Go Safe is worn around the neck. But this device is different.

“It’s not just a life saver; it’s a quality-of-life saver,” Padula says. “Just the fear of falling can restrict people’s mobility. Then they began to atrophy.” The Go Safe and similar devices are designed to make seniors — and their caregivers — feel secure enough to stay active.

“People are looking for devices that allow them to be mobile, whether that’s on the golf course or out shopping,” says Justin Noland, head of marketing for the MedicAlert Foundation, a nonprofit that links its members to emergency responders and counts Philips Lifeline as a partner. “It boils down to getting the help you need wherever you are, not just at home,” he notes.

Better Fall Detection

These newer medical alerts don’t require the user to have the will or the wherewithal to push a button. High-tech sensors now use sophisticated algorithms to detect falls.

They know the difference between someone sitting down a little too quickly and an actual fall-and-can’t-get-up situation. They can distinguish between a user dropping the device and a medical emergency. Or as Shayne Fitz-Coy, Co-CEO of Alert-1, another company providing personal safety technology, puts it: “If I throw it against the wall, that won’t trigger it. It knows that people don’t fly.”

According to the July 2015 issue of Consumer Reports, the monthly cost of medical alert devices ranges from $26 to $149; some devices have activation fees, too.

When choosing one, Fitz-Coy emphasizes the importance of flexibility and understanding your options.

Sometimes a simple single-use device might be enough, he says. Today you can find push-button devices that go on your wrist, around your neck or in your pocket. “Think of them like a fire extinguisher: a one-button, one-use device that does exactly what you need it to do when you need it,” he says.

In addition to these, there are software-based mobile phone apps that perform a similar function.

Sensing Problems


But passive monitoring devices such as door-detection sensors and the aforementioned fall detection units are gaining popularity as the technology improves. They don’t require action on the part of the user; instead they're programmed to detect unusual activity that may signal a medical emergency.

“My mom has a sensor on her fridge door,” Fitz-Coy says. If she doesn’t open the fridge by a certain time each day or leaves the door open for an unusual amount of time, her son gets an alert and gives her a call to make sure she’s OK.

Be sure to do your homework before you sign up for any kind of medical alert system. “There is some opacity in the market, which is a bit of a shame,” Fitz-Coy says. “You want to work with a company that offers flexibility as your care needs change. Look for a suite of services. Sometimes you need less care, sometimes you need more.”

Noland of MedicAlert offers similar caveats to consumers: “Always look at the fine print. There are a lot of scams out there.” And, he adds, “avoid long-term contracts. A year from now you might be in a different situation.”

Privacy a Concern

Whatever you do, listen to your parents before you do anything.

“You want mom and dad to be able to stay at home and be out in the community. You also want to be able to go to work with peace of mind,” Noland says. “These are the two things that are moving caregivers to the market.”

But don’t let worry overtake you. While it might seem like a great idea to be able to track your mom or dad’s every move, even those in the business of selling medical alert systems aren’t seeing that idea catching on.

“Nobody wants their kids watching what they’re doing 24/7,” Fitz-Coy says. “People act like seniors are this mystical group of people. They just need tools that work for them.”



Heidi Raschke is a longtime journalist and editor who previously was the Executive Editor of Mpls-St. Paul Magazine and Living and Learning Editor at Next Avenue. Currently, she runs her own content strategy and development consultancy. Read More
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