Senior Living: Do I need an emergency device?

Q. I live alone and my daughter wants me to get one of those devices that you wear around your neck and push to call for help in case of an emergency. I don't think I need one since I always carry my cellphone in my pocket. What do you think?

There are a variety of circumstances in which a cellphone won't help you. For example, if you fall on the side where the phone is and break that hip, the phone isn't going to do you any good. Or if you leave it in your purse while you are in the shower, it isn't going to help you. However, a personal emergency response system will help you because you wear it around your neck. It is waterproof, so you can even wear it in the shower.

How it works is quite simple. It involves just three components: a small radio transmitter (a light-weight, battery-powered “help” button worn on a chain around the neck or on a wrist band); a console that connects to your telephone; and an emergency response center that monitors the calls the system makes. When emergency help is needed, such as medical, fire, or police, you can press the transmitter's “help” button, sending a radio signal to the console. This causes the console to automatically dial one or more pre-selected emergency telephone numbers. Most of the systems that exist have the capability of dialing out, even if the phone is in-use or off-the-hook, making this a crucially important feature.

When an emergency response center is contacted, the caller is identified, allowing the center to determine the nature of the emergency, review your medical history, and notify the appropriate medical professionals and/or family. If the center cannot contact you or determine whether an actual emergency exists, they will notify emergency providers to go to your home, monitoring the situation until the problem is resolved.

At the time you are first set up with a personal emergency response system, a client information form will be completed. The profile will contain important information about anyone on the contact list. Information for the contact list would include each person's name, relationship, whether or not they have a key to your house, and their home, work and cell phone numbers. If no one on the contact list can be reached, emergency services in your area will be dispatched.

The client information form also includes your medical conditions, allergies, prescribed medications, doctor's information, and any special instructions.

Most consoles are quite sensitive, and in an average-sized home, the emergency response center is usually able to communicate with you, regardless of what room you're in. However, there are times when it may not be possible to communicate with you because of the extent of an emergency; therefore, medical emergency professionals like paramedics will be immediately dispatched to your home.

When evaluating a system, be sure to check its range to be sure it will work to the edge of your property. Remember that the emergency response center will not be able to speak with you if you are outside, but they will know that you are in trouble and will dispatch paramedics to your house.

Some of the more sophisticated systems include daily reminders regarding medications and appointments. They also can notify the central call center in case of a fall without you pressing the button.

Together with your daughter, look at several companies and decide which company's product or system has the features that would best suit your needs. It's just like buying insurance. You buy insurance and hope you never have to use it.

NANCY TURNEY received a bachelor's degree in social work and a certificate in gerontology. If you have a specific question you would like answered in this column, email it to or call Turney at the Crescenta-Cañada YMCA, (818) 790-0123, ext. 225.

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