Medical alert watches: a senior’s point of view
If you’ve had a fall, or have a health condition that could lead to you needing help, a medical alert system like Phillips Lifeline or the Apple Watch 4 could be for you. A medical alert system can contribute to your “peace of mind” and help you live life of your own terms.
Back when my wife and I lived in a townhouse complex, I was heading for the community mailbox. I tripped over a protruding irrigation pipe on the walk near the box – I rolled with the impact, and luckily was fine.
When we moved to a condo apartment I was rushing over to say something to the departing movers, I miscalculated the curb I was trying to hop over – and down I went. I rolled, and suffered only a mild bruise.
Last year, I placed my foot at what turned out to be an awkward angle in the shower, while I washed the other foot. I slipped and bonked my head on the side wall of the shower as I tried to regain my balance. Luckily, there was no damage – to me or the shower.
A few years ago I came as close to dying as could be. While in the Hospital Emergency Department I was diagnosed me with Stage IV congestive heart failure. There is no Stage V.
With a little luck I won’t be tripping again anytime soon, and my heart – thanks to treatment and a regular exercise routine – is classified as ”normal” now.
That said, it may be that my little trips, slips and visit to the emergency department are a wake up call. And while I don’t feel the need at this time for a system that will call 911 if I go down – the time may very well come…
In fact it may be that I’m just slow to get the message.
One in three people over 65 falls. About half of them never tell anybody
Not their family. Not their healthcare providers. And those falls are not predictable. You may trip on a curb. You may experience a hip fracture and go down. You may slip in the shower. Heart attack and stroke are always lurking around the corner. The decision to use a medical alert system is yours. The reasons to wear one are many.
Why you may want to get a medical alert system:
- Do you have difficulty walking?
- Do you use a walker, wheelchair or cane?
- Do you live alone?
- Do you feel insecure when alone for hours during the day?
- Do you have balance or memory problems?
- Do you have a serious medical illness?
- Are you on daily medications that affect your balance?
- Have you fallen in the past?
- Have you required emergency medical services?
- Do you want to keep on living independently?
- Are you safe to be living on your own (do you have a way to easily or automatically alert someone that you need help)?
What makes up a medical alert system?
Phillips Lifeline and similar products are called “systems” because they have several components and functions:
- The base unit – this sits in your home and is just like the main base of a cordless phone. It can connect to a landline or to a cellular connection and is limited more or less to the boundaries of your home.
- The wearable – the wearable part of a medical alert system goes where you go, on a wristband, pendant or tag.
- A more sophisticated wearable with a fall sensor, often at an added cost to you subscription fee
- A microphone in the unit (not all companies offer this), so you can speak to the people who monitor you
Then there are GPS devices which have location capability – this kind of device has no base unit, so you can leave home and still be connected. The mobile system is like a cell phone – it can make and receive calls. If you choose a mobile unit with GPS, the system always knows where you are.
Note that fall detection sensors occasionally send a false alarm. They may sense that you’ve fallen when all you’ve done is bend down quickly. Or you may have fallen, but you’ve been able to get back up on your own. To allow for this, there’s an automatic 20-30-second delay built into medical alert systems. If you don’t cancel it in that time, the monitoring service or the system itself will contact 911. EMS always will respond when called.
We have a neighbour who wears a medical alert system. She’s a senior and lives alone. One Sunday, EMS knocked on my door and asked if I had seen the neighbour that day. EMS was getting no response when they knocked on her door. It turned out to be a false fall alarm and my neighbour was out and about, safe and well (I have not idea how the alert was triggered in this instance since she was out and the EMS came to her condo).
80% of falls by seniors occur in the bathroom
The National Institute on Aging in the U.S. recently stated that 80% of falls by seniors occur in the bathroom. The tub and shower are obvious places where you can slip and fall. Be sure the medical alert system you select is waterproof, so you can wear the system while you take a shower or bath – my experience slipping in the shower comes to mind…
The point of wearing a medical alert system is to call for help when you get into trouble. Most of the systems I’ve looked at don’t charge up front for the unit, but ask you for a monthly subscription fee that covers the cost of the unit and monthly monitoring. These 24/7 monitoring stations, once alerted, will call the people on your programmed list and if no one responds, EMS.
There are many brands of monitored medical alert systems in Canada. The top-selling brand is Lifeline by Phillips. Its fall detector, AutoAlert, claims to have a more sophisticated location capability than just GPS.
If you’re interested in a no-contract, monitored system, check out Life Assure.
One unit, Life Alert, has no monthly monitoring fee, but charges you the full price of the unit up front. It will call up to five contacts in an emergency – friends and family – and can include 911 as one of the five.
Bell Canada offers Medical Alert, monitored, with or without a contract, depending on what you order.
There are several other brands, of course. Whatever you choose, be sure to know what all the costs are. There may be a one-time installation fee and charges for individual features.
So you have lots of flexibility in how you want to pay for a medical alert system. You can subscribe to a service with no contract, one with a contract or a service with no support system of its own and no monthly fee.
I could not find any specifically Canadian, objective reviews of medical alert systems. All the reviews I’ve seen either are American or somehow tied to a particular brand. My advice: Talk to friends to see if they are using a system and if they are happy with it – there’s nothing like a personal recommendation.
You can also search the Internet for the brands available in Canada, then see if any third-party, non-commercial American reviews that can tell you more about the systems and how well they work. If there are model numbers, cross-check to see if they’re the same or very similar in Canada. Failing that, ask the Canadian sales representative if the American product is the same.
Apple Watch 4 fall detection and Emergency SOS
When one of the world’s largest and most successful technology companies gets in on the action you know that there are real issues that need real solutions. The new Apple Watch 4 is already saving lives in the U.S. with its heart monitor and fall detection and it’s a terrific value.
The fall detector and what Apple calls “Emergency SOS” are fully functional.
The FDA in the U.S. has approved Apple Watch 4 as a device to monitor the heart – it has a built in ECG (electrocardiogram) function, but Apple has not yet applied for Health Canada approval (when approved Apple can activate it as it is already built in to Apple 4 Watches).
Most importantly – Apple Watch 4 is a communications device that needs no base station, so it goes where you go. If you choose the model that works through an iPhone, just keep your phone with you at all times. If you go for the cellular model, it will be independent of your iPhone.
Compared with dedicated medical alert systems, Apple Watch 4 is about same price as if you were to pay for the dedicated system up front. And there’s no monitoring cost. But Apple Watch 4 will be able to do so much more – and it’s still also a watch.
Apple Watch 4 capabilities include:
- Detecting atrial fibrillation – with 97% accuracy (Apple claims, studies are ongoing)
- Option for you to set low – and high-heart-rate limits
- Gives you on-screen notice if you exceed limits that you set and advises you to consult your doctor
- Fall detection
- Automated fall alerts (Emergency SOS) allowing you to program up to five phone numbers, from 911 to friends, neighbours and relatives, that it will automatically call in an emergency if you fall. This feature works directly through the watch or through an iPhone depending on the model of Apple Watch 4
- GPS locating to locate you precisely for emergency responders and provide your medical I.D
- Health tracking – track your heart (ECG coming soon), your fitness performance, all your health data in one place
- April 3, 2019 Apple received a CE MArk for and ECG app for use in the latest Apple watch. CE marking is a certification mark that indicates conformity with health, safety, and environmental protection standards for products sold within the European Economic Area. The app can record the heart rhythm when users experience symptoms such as a rapid or skipped heart beat and provide clinically important data to physicians. The watch’s irregular rhythm notification feature occasionally checks heart rhythm in the background and sends a notification if an irregular heart rhythm that appears to be atrial fibrillation is identified. The apps were previously approved by the FDA.
The older Apple Watch 3 has a heart monitor, an earlier version that is not as accurate as Apple 4’s. It doesn’t have a fall detector and Emergency SOS.
How do seniors really feel about wearing a medical alert system pendant or wristband?
In her thesis for a Master of Gerontological Studies degree at Miami University in 2016, Sunaina Raina revealed that seniors understand the benefits of wearing a medical alert system pendant or wristband, but don’t always feel comfortable with one.
It’s hardly “jewellery,” and it does send a clear signal that you’re a senior with issues.
Some wearers were reluctant to push the emergency button, much the same as folks who are reluctant to pick up the phone and call EMS when they should. One woman said she didn’t wear her pendant when she was going out and wanted to feel “pretty.” I get that.
The best thing about Apple Watch 4 has nothing to do with its functionality
Unlike all of the dedicated medical alert systems – which many people feel carry some kind of stigma – the Apple Watch appeals to both young and old. The Apple Watch is “on trend”.
Wear one and you’re cool!
Which means the people who would benefit from falls monitoring etc. are more likely to wear it. This is a huge plus when evaluating which “system” to go with.
A medical alert system is about freedom of movement, as much as it is about peace of mind
If you knew that help in a medical emergency is just the press of a button or a sensed fall away, how much freer would you be to enjoy life? If the answer is, “Lots!” then you’re in the market for a medical alert system. It may take a while to commit to one (the way it took me a couple of years to commit to hearing aids), but I hope I’ve helped clarify some of the considerations when looking into medical alert systems.