What You Need to Know When Considering a Medical Alert Device for Persons with Dementia

Last Updated: September 19, 2018

As a caregiver of a person with dementia, one of your main concerns is the safety and wellbeing of your loved one. To help provide peace of mind when he/she is home alone, there are medical alert systems, as well as enhanced medical alert devices. From automated fall detection, to GPS tracking systems, to tracking activities (or lack of activity) in the home via motion sensors, medical alert systems are indispensable.


Today’s Medical Alert Devices

Remember the old “life alert” devices that would enable an individual who had experienced a fall to push a button and receive assistance? Medical alert devices, also called Personal Emergency Response Services (PERS) and fall monitors, are quite commonly used among elderly, frail persons. However, usage of medical alert services is significantly less common among persons with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. Why is this? The most logical explanation is that persons with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia are memory and cognitively impaired. Therefore, their families feel that the person with dementia will a) forget to use the emergency call button when a trauma occurs or b) mistakenly call for an emergency response when the need does not exist.

Recent technology advances have enabled a variety of new in-home devices that can greatly improve the quality of life and safety for those with dementia who remain living in their homes. These devices are vastly more sophisticated and superior to ones in the past, and they are designed to accommodate the previously mentioned issues. In addition, they have additional features intended to assist persons with memory challenges. For example, the Apple Watch Series 4 now has built in features similar to a medical alert, like fall detection.


What to Look for in Medical Alert Service for a Loved One with Dementia?

Unfortunately, not all medical alert devices are created equal and some services are not well designed for persons with dementia. Fortunately, those devices that are intended specifically for dementia are not significantly more expensive than those that are not. When considering a medical alert service for persons with dementia, look for the following features:

Automated Fall Detection
Fall detection is common in most, but not all, medical alert devices. According to the National Institute on Aging (NIA), for those aged 65 and over, more than one out of three will fall in any given year. Given that persons with Alzheimer’s/dementia are more prone to falls than other elderly persons in the same age groups, fall detection is a must-have. In short, internal sensors detect when a fall has occurred using accelerometers. Better devices take into consideration movement, or lack thereof, after the fall as a gauge of the severity of the fall.

Default Activation
Building on the fall detection functionality, a medical alert device for persons with dementia must default to the activated state. In other words, if a fall is detected and the emergency call button is NOT pushed, the service should assume that an injury has occurred or that a fall has occurred and the individual with dementia may not have had the presence of mind to utilize the device. Therefore, the service should pro-actively attempt to contact the device wearer or their emergency contacts.

Non-Emergency Response / Sequential Contacts
As a person with dementia may not have the presence of mind to use the device when necessary and conversely, because they might activate the emergency button when there is no emergency, the medical alert service needs to have non-emergency contacts that they will reach out to prior to alerting first responders. To be clear, the medical alert call center should first attempt to call a family member or loved one in the proximity to validate that there is indeed an emergency. Should the first call recipient not answer, a second emergency contact should be called, again, prior to alerting first responders. Phrased another way, the medical alert service provider must allow for a series of contacts to be called in sequential order to confirm the need for emergency responders.

GPS Tracking & Wander Alerts
As many persons with dementia are prone to wandering, the medical alert device needs to be wearable and have GPS tracking enabled to allow family members to locate their loved one should they wander from their home. It should also have the equivalent of an ID bracelet, something to let good Samaritans know the identity and the medical condition of the individual should they encounter them out and about without supervision.

Ability to Set Home Areas
The aforementioned GPS tracking is of much greater value, if the family is able to select certain “home areas”. Home areas are defined locations in which the person with dementia is deemed not to be wandering. For example, movement in and around one’s home should not trigger a “wander alert”. In addition, a family may want to include a second home area, such as the home of an adult child whom the person with dementia often visits. Furthermore, a loved one should be able to turn off the GPS tracking by using a special code, if for example, they are picking the person with the device up and taking them out to lunch.

Cellular Network Coverage
Many medical alert devices are designed to work with a home phone line or a local WIFI network. Since persons with Alzheimer’s are prone to wandering and will likely wander outside the home range of the medical alert device, it should be designed to use a cellular phone network instead of, or in addition to, a home phone or home WIFI network. (Medical alert devices that are only landline based generally only function up to 400 to 1,000 feet).


Other Considerations

In addition to features/ functionality, caregivers should look for in medical alert devices, there are also several other considerations that should be made as far as functionality.

How is the Device Worn?
It’s important that the medical alert device feels comfortable when worn. If it isn’t, it’s likely that persons will remove it, and then it will serve no purpose. There are a variety of options for wear and include pendants, bracelets, wristwatches, as well as the ability to clip the device to one’s belt or waistband.

Is the Device Water Resistant?
Both the wearable device and the base should be water resistant. The ability to wear the device while bathing or showering is very important. This is because the bathroom is a common place for persons to fall, and again, if the device isn’t worn, it is useless. Be sure to consider water resistance levels. For instance, some devices can be worn for short showers, while others can withstand a bath in shallow water up to a half hour.

Does the Medical Alert Device Offer a Free Trial or Money Back Guarantee?
Finding the best medical alert device for you and your loved one’s needs is vital. This means that you may need to try more than one device before finding the one that is ideal for your given situation. A free trial period or money back guarantee allows you to try medical alert systems without the stress of feeling “stuck” with a medical device that isn’t right for you and your loved one.

Is the Medical Alert Device Easy to Use?
Many older persons, especially those with dementia, may have challenges learning new technology. Therefore, it is extremely important that the device is easy to use.

How Long Does the Battery Last?
When shopping around for a medical alert device, pay special attention to the average battery life for each particular device. Some devices require charging on a nearly daily basis, which can be very inconvenient. Some batteries last about a week, others last as long as a month, and still others last for a few years.


Enhanced Medical Alert Devices

What are Enhanced Medical Alert Devices?

Enhanced or advance medical alert devices, also sometimes referred to as home security monitoring systems, are another option that allow persons with dementia to be more closely monitored. Activity or the lack of activity in a home can be tracked and monitored remotely by smartphone. Alternatively, any unusual activity can be detected and trigger alerts to one or more phones or emergency responders. All the while preserving the privacy of the individual suffering from dementia. Today’s systems can track and alert caregivers and family members in real-time. These systems are capable of tracking the following:

  • Movement within and around every room in a home. Smart-detection prevents pets from triggering false alarms.
  • Opening and closing of doors, including external facing doors to prevent wandering.
  • Automated fall detection and instant notification.
  • Medication management through connected electronic pillboxes.
  • Stove/oven sensors to detect unusual or prolonged usage.

Essentially, a complete picture of the individual with dementia’s activity can be created in real-time without compromising their privacy. A network of family members can receive alerts when unusual activity occurs or they can check in as frequently as they choose from their smartphones.

How Do They Work?

A series of tiny sensors are placed throughout the home in important locations, such as on bedroom doors, bathroom/shower doors, and doors that open to the outside of the house or garage. More sensors are placed by the stove and in a specialized pill dispenser. Finally, the individual wears a discreet pin or pendant that detects falls. Information is transmitted either through the home Internet connection or a cellular network (in case of outages or if there is no home Internet). Alerts are then sent via text message or email to whomever the family chooses. A smartphone app allows family and caregivers to check in whenever it is convenience for them.


How Much Do Medical Alert Systems Cost?

Costs vary depending on how robust the system is. On the low end, some vendors charge less than $1 / day or more feature-rich systems cost approximately $3 / day. Some vendors have additional charges for set up or they have a “per sensor” charge. Other vendors offer all-inclusive pricing. Through Medicaid, veterans’ programs, and some state-based programs, financial assistance may be available depending on one’s state and financial situation. Please note, medical alert systems can save families money because they decrease the amount of home care hours that are required to keep their loved one safe and to maintain their emotional equilibrium.