Support, guidance & advice for todays primary carers
Considering buying a personal alarm for your elderly loved one? Here’s everything you need to know.
Is it time the elderly person in your care needs a personal alarm? This guide looks at the two main types – autodial alarms and monitored alarms. First, CHOICE magazine looks at the pros and cons of the former (with a caveat about their effectiveness on the next page), then we take a deep dive into monitored alarms.
When a personal alarm is triggered on an auto-dial alarm, it sends an emergency alert to preset mobile phone numbers. Many personal alarms also perform other functions such as location tracking and automated location updates.
An auto-dial alarm is always on and monitors three key things:
- The wearer’s position using GPS
- Any increases in speed (indicating the wearer is in a car or in public transport)
- Sudden movements followed by no movement (indicating a possible fall).
You can program the alarm to regularly update you with the wearer’s co-ordinates via text, or alert you if it detects an incident such as a fall, or if the wearer leaves a pre-determined area near their home.
It also includes an SOS button for the wearer to press and send an immediate alert to a list of contacts you can program into the device. This SOS button can also send a text message to those contacts.
What are the different types of auto-dial alarms?
There are two basic options available: a pendant and a smartwatch.
Both pendants and watches usually have all of the communication, emergency response and tracking features mentioned above, but watches can be a bit more difficult to use due to the touch screen. At the same time, they can offer additional features you’d find in a smartwatch, such as support for thirdparty apps (see safety features, next page).
Basic pendant models have a large SOS button that’s easy to press during an emergency, as well as individual call buttons on the side. Though simple, models like this don’t have a screen to provide feedback on things such as remaining battery charge, who you’re calling, mobile signal strength and so on. Pendant models without a screen are the easiest to use, but lack some features. Pendants with a screen are very similar to the basic model but the screen will provide some simple status updates. This can add some extra weight (usually 10-20 grams) and may reduce battery life.
Smartwatch-style alarms use a touchscreen interface and may also have a small SOS button on the side. You can often customise the appearance with a variety of watch faces, while the settings and contact menus are more detailed.
But they can be hard to use for those with limited dexterity, particularly in the event of an emergency like a fall. It’s much easier to press a big SOS button than scroll through a list of contacts. Also, the screen is typically quite small and it can be hard to read the text and tap the correct icon.
Buying a Personal Alarm
Almost all personal alarms are sold online, or through small businesses specialising in aged care. However, you may find that nursing homes, hospitals and senior community groups have partnerships with brands.
Prices range from $140 up to almost $500, which may not include the price of the SIM card or optional subscription service. However, you might be able to get a personal alarm from the government, if you meet assessment requirements. The Commonwealth Home Support Program provides government support for individuals who need access to services and financial assistance required for independent living as they age.
The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) can also provide funding, while veterans might be able to receive support through their own government programs. Community services and even manufacturers may offer financial support and solutions as well, though this varies and tends to exist on a case-by-case basis. Check with your health fund, too.
Which Type is Best?
This depends on a number of physical and mental health factors, so please understand that this advice is a broad starting point. It’s best to consult with the wearer’s GP first.
If the wearer is in a good physical and mental state but wants a personal alarm for peace of mind, then a pendant or touchscreen watch will be fine. A model with GPS is also worth looking into if the wearer is often out and about by themselves, as this will allow you to pinpoint their location if something happens. Just understand that a touchscreen watch can take time to learn, particularly if the wearer hasn’t used a smartwatch before.
If the wearer has limited dexterity due to conditions such as arthritis, or they have vision impairment, go for a pendant with a large SOS button. Small touchscreens can be hard to see and navigate, which could be life-threatening in an emergency. Those with limited mobility, movement difficulties or fall risks (which include seizures) should consider models with good-quality fall detection. This can activate an alarm if they’re unable to do it themselves or they lose consciousness. However, most fall detectors will not activate if a person slumps (for example, out of a wheelchair) or falls slowly. They’re only designed to auto-activate from a sudden, rapid drop. Mental health and memory-related symptoms can present other complications, particularly if the wearer doesn’t have physical limitations. In this case, it’s best to talk to them about places they regularly go. Then you can consider an alarm that will provide alerts if they leave these areas.
Important Safety Features to Look For
BATTERY LIFE. A longer battery life is useful if you forget to charge it overnight. Ideally, a personal alarm should have an active (in-use) battery life of 24 hours, or enough to get you through a day at the
CHARGING CRADLE OR MAGNETIC DOCK. Putting your personal alarm in a charging cradle is much easier than fiddling with a cable, especially if you have limited dexterity. That said, some models have magnetic connectors that make it easier to plug the cable in.
FALL DETECTION. This sends an alert when the device falls rapidly. This is usefulfor someone with a fall risk.
GEO-FENCING. When you have responsibility for someone who wanders, you might want to be alerted when that person goes outside of their known areas. Geo-fencing works by setting up a virtual fence. When the wearer and the device cross this virtual fence, it sends an alert to a contact.
GPS LOCATION. This is designed to track the user while they’re carrying the device. But the effectiveness of GPS location can be reduced by tall buildings, dense developments and being inside buildings. Some let you track movement in an app while others will provide GPS co-ordinates via text. You can set the frequency of these alerts, usually in five or 10-minute blocks (ping frequency).
NON-MOVEMENT ALARM. This alerts a contact if the device doesn’t detect movement for a specified amount of time.
NUMBER OF CONTACTS. Look for an alarm that accepts more than one contact. The more contacts you have, the better. The alarm will automatically cycle through names until someone answers.
PING FREQUENCY. This refers to GPS monitoring, and most models fall into one of three categories: frequent alerts, occasional alerts, and alerts when the device leaves a geo-fenced boundary. A good quality alarm will let you pick one of these options. Greater ping frequency consumes battery power at faster rate, which could render the alarm useless by the end of the day.
WATER AND DUST RESISTANCE. An ingress protection (IP) rating is the best way to identify whether a personal alarm is dust and water-resistant. The first digit applies to particulate protection (dirt, dust etc) and the second to moisture protection. Generally speaking, higher numbers equal a greater level of protection. Look for an alarm with a rating of IP66 or IP67, although the former is not waterproof and can’t be worn in the bath or shower or when swimming.
The other main type of personal alarm on the market is a monitored alarm, which connects to a 24/7 emergency response centre. If help is required, the user presses the button on the device and a trained professional answers the call within a few minutes.
The main advantages of a full-response alarm service are: fast response time, which is crucial during an emergency; two-way communication with the response centre; response centres can quickly assess the seriousness of the situation to determine whether relatives or emergency services need to be contacted, and can share the emergency information and wearer’s medical history with Triple Zero, who can then prioritise the call.
How does it work?
Most monitored personal alarm companies only offer a service that works in the home and garden, but in the past couple of years, several makers have introduced mobile and watch alarms. These allow the wearer to go about their daily activities and even operate while they’re on holiday (within Australia).
Not all monitored alarm systems require the wearer to have a phone line. At MePACS, for example, its alarms work independently of the NBN and local telephone lines, as they run off the mobile phone network. This means that the wearer doesn’t need to be connected to the NBN or have a phone line. If the wearer feels unwell, falls or has any sort of medical emergency, they press the button on the device. An alert is then sent to a response service through a base unit or mobile alarm via the mobile network. The response centre will answer the call and speak with the person to assess what type of help is needed. The operator can speak to the wearer with the voice-to-voice feature of the alarm unit. This is an important feature for an older person when they can’t get to a phone.
What are the key features?
Like their auto-dial counterparts, monitored alarms are quick and simple to activate – usually by the press of a button. They have two-way communication with the response team, whereby the caller and the emergency response operator can speak easily through the device. The response team is specifically trained to understand emergency situations, meaning they can accurately assess the situation and work out what help is needed.
Most mobile alarms have a GPS locator to identify where the wearer is located, which is an essential feature in an emergency. Most are also relatively lightweight and can be worn as a pendant around the wearer’s neck, or on a belt clip, to ensure easy access in an emergency situation
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