Prepared for emergencies in old age

Emergency systems help the elderly live more safely in the comfort of their own homes. Thanks to technological innovation, the options today extend far beyond simply pressing a button on a wristband.

Text: Nicole Krättli; photo: Sanitas

Figures published by the Swiss Council for Accident Prevention (BFU) show that each year in Switzerland over 280,000 people have a serious fall that requires treatment at a medical practice or in hospital. Of this figure,  88,000 are over the age of 65. In fact, over 1,500 of the elderly people who fall each year die as a result. That’s why prevention and ensuring a fast response in the event of a fall are so important. This not only saves lives, but helps people live safer for longer in the comfort of their own homes.

In the past, a clunky button worn on the wrist was the only way elderly people could get rapid help in an emergency. Thanks to technical advances, a number of alternatives are now available that are not only more discreet, but also offer a greater range of functions. When you’re selecting a device, there are a few things you need to watch out for:

Emergency contact: should the alarm alert members of the family or the emergency services?

Emergency procedure: when the alarm is triggered, should the emergency services be sent straight away or should verbal contact be made first?

Mobility: should the emergency system work only at home or outside as well?

Usability: How tech-savvy is the person using the device? 

Button, watch or smartphone?

Despite the technological advances, an old favourite continues to hold its own when it comes to choosing a personal alarm system. With the emergency button system, a trigger connected to a receiver is worn as a wristband or as a pendant around the neck. This system can be expanded by choosing a receiver with a loudspeaker and microphone. This way, the person who falls can either press the button or shout for help. “The advantage of the emergency buttons is that the wearer doesn’t need any technical know-how,” explains Udo Allgaier, expert for living in old age at Pro Senectute, the Swiss foundation that promotes well-being among the elderly. You can even find mobile versions nowadays that operate solely with an alarm button and GPS.

In contrast to emergency button devices, emergency watches work without a base station. They come with a SIM card, loudspeaker and a microphone, making them the ideal solution for people who want to be safe while on the move. “If an alarm is triggered, the stored emergency contacts or emergency hotline can usually call the watch directly and talk to the wearer,” says Allgaier.

Some providers of everyday smartwatches have now also added emergency call functions to their products. More recent models can also react to serious falls, and enable the wearer to sound or stop the alarm at the tap of a finger. Anyone who doesn’t want an additional device can opt for a smartphone app as an alternative. One example is the “Uepaa” app, developed in Switzerland. “With the app solution for the smartphone, the main concern is whether the person really is always wearing their smartphone,” explains Allgaier. You've also got to consider that the hardware costs more to buy, the systems require technical know-how, and the devices have to be charged regularly.

Friends and family are also important

Whether and when an elderly person requires an alarm system depends largely on their personal situation. “It's certainly a good idea for people who live alone and who have little contact with family, friends and neighbours,” says Allgaier. However, despite the technology available, he also recommends getting friends and neighbours involved. “It’s worth agreeing a system to help neighbours know that you’re OK. For example, if the blinds are up, the sign on the door is turned around, the postbox is empty or you’ve been in touch by phone.” Emergency systems all have one thing in common: they provide support, but they cannot guarantee safety 100%. “Family members are often more interested in a reliable monitoring system than the elderly persons themselves,” says Allgaier as a final thought.