Medical alert systems: Help that’s always within your reach

  • By Deanna Duff, Special to The Herald
  • Thursday, April 24, 2014 9:54am
  • Life

Roberta Byrom looks forward to her walks around the grounds of Washington Oakes Retirement Community in Everett. She does not take them for granted. In 2012 she suffered a stroke at home and was unable to get immediate help. She now wears a Life Alert button to ensure that help is only a click away.

“After the stroke, my husband came and I grabbed hold of his walker to pull myself up, but he ended up falling on me and neither of us could move,” said Byrom. “We laid on the floor from 3 a.m. until almost 10 in the morning.”

Thankfully, her husband’s hospice nurse was scheduled to visit that morning, but the experience highlighted the need for a way to call for help. Byrom is now one of millions who use medical alert systems. Most employ some type of “SOS” button that is worn either as a necklace or bracelet. If there is an emergency, individuals can activate the system and are connected to an operator who helps determine whether to notify designated individuals, such as family members, or summon emergency services.

Dozens of national providers exist, including Life Alert, Medical Guardian and LifeFone. Providence Health &Services is one of 3,400 agencies that contracts with Lifeline. Now in its 40th year, Lifeline’s Personal Emergency Response Service (PERS) serves 1,500 Western Washington subscribers from 17 to 103 years old.

“A lot of older adults use it so that they can remain independent if they don’t want to move into a retirement or convalescent home,” said Terry Isaacson, Lifeline installer for Snohomish County. “Some might even be perfectly fine and haven’t experienced previous health problems, but it provides comfort. It’s like always having a roommate nearby to help you.”

The PERS communicator box is smaller than an average telephone and electrically powered. In case of power outage, a backup battery ensures continuous service. The average range is 500 feet, but newer systems are safely extending it to 800 feet. In summer 2014, Providence will add Lifeline’s GoSafe program. The wireless system’s coverage travels with the individual whether it’s a visit to the grocery store or taking a vacation.

Unlike relying on a cellphone, individuals do not have to worry about forgetting their PERS system. It is light to wear and waterproof so it can be worn in the shower, where falls frequently occur.

“It also provides comfort to caregivers and family members who can’t always be present or call to check in every day. They know if something happens, someone will be notified,” said Issacson, whose younger sister used PERS during a health crisis.

It is also popular with recently discharged hospital patients and individuals with physical or mental disabilities. In addition to critical emergencies, the system can be used for less urgent situations. For instance, if power or phone lines prevent regular communication, PERS can update family members.

With so many options, Isaacson advises asking key questions up front:

How easy is it to use? For instance, Providence’s Lifeline system encourages users to press the button once a month to give the user confidence that the system is working.

Is the system supported? Issacson and other installers are responsible for setting up the system and all maintenance is covered in the monthly fee.

Are additional options available? Lifeline can install multiple, customized buttons to serve numerous people in the same household.

Medicare and most insurance plans generally do not cover the cost of medical alert systems.

Byrom emphasized the importance of having a system in place before it is needed. She feels fortunate to have largely recovered since every moment counts when treating a stroke.

“I knew alert systems existed, but just ignored it. You always think it’s somebody else who needs it, but not you. It’s best to plan ahead,” she said.

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