Thursday, November 15, 2007

Life Alert and other home emergency monitoring services: why haven't the media reported on them much?

As a never married childless older man, I have dealt with a troubling question: should I allow eldercare needs to affect where I live, where I take employment, and my strategy for dealing with employers? This sounds like a Dr. Phil topic, although I don’t see it there now (I’m thinking about email the Dr. Phil show to bring this up). I don’t want to be more specific here about personal business, other than to bring up what is a troubling question that ought to be up among the frontrunners in public policy debate. In the past, I have been pressured by others not to live out of the area where I have some eldercare issues. Is this appropriate? (I realize there could have been other options, like being able to buy a house big enough while in place.)

There are a number of home monitoring products that seniors who live alone but who may be at risk from sudden accidents or emergencies can purchase. Recently, Life Alert has been advertising on CNN with a spot by former Surgeon General (under the Reagan Administration) C. Everett Koop. This spot promotes the use of the device (with Koop’s blessing) for seniors in this circumstance. That gives it some credibility. The website has relatively little information and encourages the consumer to call an 800 number for a brochure. I did so. I await the brochure in the mail, but a salesman, who said that he was himself 64, called me back. He says that the service has been in effect for 25 years.

Life Alert claims that the average age for entering a retirement home is 79, but for their clients it is six years later, 85. The link is here. That statistic by itself does not support the notion that single adult children can rest easy living away from elderly parents indefinitely, Koop's promotion of the product notwithstanding.

It’s curious, then, that the major media have not discussed home monitoring devices much when presenting the eldercare issue. There are plenty of stories in the media of teenagers caring for their parents, and of adult children in the “sandwich generation.” I’m surprised that I haven’t heard more about this in the major media.

There have been a few stories, and I recall at least one that required that the customer’s computer run a monitoring application and webcam all the time. Life Alert would not require that.

Apparently, according to a quick Internet search, there are a number of such products, some of them cheaper than Life Alert. (Typically the hardware, including wearable pendant, costs a few hundred dollars, and there is a monitoring contract with a monthly fee, similar to a home security company). One such website is this.

There have also been some complaints about Life Alert, discussed on by Joseph S. Enoch, “Seniors' Fear of Falling Keeps Life Alert Flush”, Former U.S. Surgeon General cashes in on seniors' fears, here. The visitor will have to judge the veracity of these for herself. The tone of the article (the title) seems to miscast the problem.

The question remains, however. There is an increasing population of older Baby Boomer adults with no parenting experience of their own who may need to carry eldercare responsibilities as their own parents live longer, and this can affect major decisions that they make for themselves. There seems to be little public discussion of this yet. That seems surprising, and that will probably change. Monitoring will handle some perils, such as when an elder falls but is conscious and can press a pendant button to call for help. It can also provide home security when an elder is home alone. It does not provide custodial care itself, guarantee the taking of medication, or meet any number of other needs. That is why the cost and availability of home health aides (complicated by immigration issues perhaps) and assisted living are becoming important problems, as is long term care insurance.—all in conjunction with the likelihood that some states might become more aggressive in enforcing filial responsibility laws.

A comparable suggestion could be that an senior living along gets a cell phone and learns how to use if (if able, not always the case). In my own situation, as I look back over the past ten years or so, I can see that I was not as aggressive or as resourceful as I could have been in seeing how these newer communications devices could have helped me manage my issues. I had a clumsy cell phone in 1998, but didn’t start using them much until 2002 when they were smaller. I can recall stopping at convenience stores on the road and calling for messages from pay phones, or from motel phones (which charge a lot). No more.


Pete said...

As you point out, Bill, there are two kinds of "alert" devices--those that actively monitor a situation and passive systems that use a bracelet or pendant device to allow a push-button call for help.

When my mother moved in with us (she was 83) we got her a pendant. What we failed to understand was that her dementia was so advanced that she could never remember what the pendant was for and therefore never used it.

She suffered repeated bouts of congestive heart failure, and on at least three occasions she was saved by Doug, our black Labrador retriever. When Doug heard her breathing become labored, he would bark and wake us up. He loved Gram and watched over her every night. They're both gone now, and I miss them both.


Anonymous said...

I hear you loud and clear. It was one of the most difficult decisions I have ever made. I also saw negative things online, but when I checked BBB, they have a great rating. It turns out that consumer is not a non-profit consumer reporting bureau. I do not think they are out to help consumers. After all that work, mom refuses to wear the button. I wish there was a was to have one implanted.