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Will You Wear a Fall Monitor Sooner Than You Expect?

As the technology goes cellular, extending its range beyond the home, the potential audience is going to get younger

By Gary Drevitch

In the future, you'll never have to yell, "I've fallen and I can't get up!"

If you take a tumble, everyone who matters – your children, your doctor and emergency services – will already know. And the technology that will make it happen is being marketed to younger consumers than ever before.

The Latest in Monitoring Technology

Personal Emergency Response Systems, or PERS, have been with us for years as the push-button devices – typically bracelets or pendants – made famous by that widely spoofed late-night commercial. Monitoring systems being developed today, however, don't react only when a wearer falls. They're designed "to avoid the first fall," says industry blogger Laurie Orlov, editor of the Aging in Place Technology Watch.

New PERS-enabled products are just one part of home-based systems that may also employ sensors with technology based on Microsoft's Kinect game system and earthquake detection devices to detect changes in gait, declines in walking ability and increases in inactivity that raise red flags with physicians.

It's a worthy goal: More than 13 million people age 65 or older will take a fall this year; that's one every 2.3 seconds. In 2010, about 2.3 million nonfatal fall injuries among seniors required emergency-room treatment and more than 660,000 led to hospitalization. The direct medical cost of falls in 2010 alone was $30 billion, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And a senior who has stumbled once is three times more likely to fall again than his or her peers are to fall for a first time.

(MORE: New Studies Reveal a Link Between Alzheimer's and Changes in Gait)

The challenge the industry faces, though, is the same it always has – many older people don't want to wear a bracelet or pendant that, at some level, reminds them of their vulnerability, especially those whose adult children have purchased it for them and ordered them to wear it. About two-thirds of all such devices are purchased by family caregivers for parents or other relatives, says Tony Titus, senior vice president of sales and business development for Numera, which develops PERS-enabled devices. But the products tend not to be especially stylish or come with "value-added" features that appeal to users.
That will change, Titus and others predict, as PERS capabilities become more fully integrated into smart phones, watches and other items that don't call attention to themselves as monitors. At that point, Orlov suggests, family caregivers may find themselves in the welcome position of being able to equip parents with PERS-enabled devices "before they need it."

Users Get Younger and More Active

The next stage in what Orlov describes as a $1.5 billion to $2 billion U.S. PERS market is to create systems for younger, more active adults. "In 10 years," she predicts, "the average age of a person using a PERS-capable system will shift from 84 to 74." Then it will get even younger.


(MORE: For Caregivers, New Tracking Technology Offers Peace of Mind)

Leading the charge is home electronics giant Philips, whose GoSafe mobile PERS device is set to go on the market later this year. GoSafe, an extension of the company's popular Lifeline product, a traditional home-based PERS system, is intended for active people to take with them as they head outside on walks, jogs or hikes.

While on one level a logical and potentially lucrative brand extension, the GoSafe is also based on research finding that, as people age, a fear of their limitations leads them to stay at home more than they actually need to. "If you stay in your chair" because of fear of falling when you go outside, says Rob Goudswaard, senior director of global product and service programs at Philips, "then you're more likely to fall" when you do get up, because of declines in strength, energy and balance due to extended inactivity.

Philips' new system, which at least in its initial form will be worn around the neck, includes many of the features that next-generation products are expected to carry. For one, it's cellular, not tied to land lines like many current PERS systems. It relies on GPS as well as other proprietary location technologies to track wearers even when they go out of standard cell phone range. And it alerts the system when it detects that its wearer has fallen, offering two-way speech capability to communicate with him or her.

(MORE: The Newest, High-Tech Pill Will Text When Swallowed)

The system's ability to detect falls then have help center staff reach out to wearers, instead of relying on consumers to press a help button is important, Goudswaard says. "Too many people don't press their button" after a fall, even when they're able to do so, he says. Philips research finds that many users say they simply don't want to disturb staffers working the lines, especially overnight. 

GoSafe, Philips spokesman Paul Baril says, is for active, able-bodied people who may be somewhat wary of their limitations but "not chained to their house." They may have had a fall or become concerned about their sense of direction or simply want to continue doing the things they love outdoors with a stronger safety net.
The new system will be sold directly to consumers and purchased outright; most PERS devices today are rented through health-care providers. The projected cost for next-generation peace of mind is $150 for the hardware, with a $50 per month fee for the tracking and communications service.

Gary Drevitch was senior Web editor for Next Avenue's Caregiving and Health channels. Read More
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