How to choose a fall alarm for elderly relatives

A common concern amongst those of us with elderly parents and relatives is the possibility of them having a serious fall and being unable to get help quickly. With good reason – approximately a third of people over 65 and half of people over 80 will have a fall at least once a year.

While taking steps to help reduce their risk of falls is a top priority, personal alarms offer reassurance by providing a direct line to help in the event of an emergency.

Indeed, personal alarms don’t just assist with falls but other medical emergencies, too.

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But, with several types of alarms available, how do you know which one to choose?

Making sure you choose the right fall alarm – also known as a personal alarm or pendant alarm – for your elderly relative is essential to ensure the device serves their situation and needs. However, with several types of alarms available on the market, it’s hard to know where to start or how to come to a decision.

This article will guide you through the various types of alarms and factors to consider when choosing a personal alarm for your elderly parent or relative.

Types of personal alarms

Personal alarms fulfil the same fundamental function – providing people with a line to emergency contact when they’re unable to reach a phone.

However, a few different types and forms of personal alarms are available that suit different people and scenarios, such as pendants, wristbands and clip-ons. Today, it’s fair to say that wrist and pendant alarms are the most popular options.

Let’s take a closer look at the different types of personal alarms and their respective features.

Designs

  • Pendant alarms: This is the most traditional type, worn around the neck. Brands like SureSafe and Age Co by Age UK offer these in various models. Pendant alarms are straightforward, as they can be easily accessed in an emergency.
  • Wrist alarms: These alarms look like a wristwatch and are a less intrusive way for the elderly to keep their emergency button within reach. LifeConnect24 is one brand that offers wrist alarms equipped with fall detection.
  • Clip-on alarms: For those who prefer not to wear an alarm around their neck or wrist, clip-on options can be attached to clothing or a belt.

Functionality

Alarms have evolved to add new features such as GPS tracking and fall detection.

  • Basic alarms: The most straightforward type of alarm features a button that, when pressed, sends an immediate alert to a caregiver or 24-hour emergency monitoring service. All the wearer has to do is press the button.
  • Automatic fall detection: Fall detection alarms use sensors to automatically detect if the wearer has fallen and send an alert without needing any action from the user. This adds a layer of safety but can also trigger false alarms for those who lead an active lifestyle. Most are only able to detect hard falls and will only trigger an alert in this instance.
  • GPS tracking: Modern portable personal alarms come with GPS tracking capabilities, allowing caregivers or emergency services to locate the wearer anywhere they go. Brands like Careline supply these kinds of alarms at a starting subscription cost of around £15.99 per month. GPS tracking offers excellent security for elderly relatives who often venture outside, but it can increase costs and usually requires a monthly subscription.

Factors to consider when selecting a personal alarm system

There are several other features to consider when choosing a personal alarm besides form and functionality.


For example, GPS alarms may seem great, but they’re also expensive – and does your relative really need one?

Similarly, not all alarms feature microphones mounted in the device itself, which means users have to be near the base station in their home in order to talk to operators.

Here’s a little more about these factors:

Types of alarms: base station vs GPS

Personal alarms either work through a base station set up at home or wirelessly via GPS. Base station models, usually in the form of a watch or pendant, offer limited range between 100m and 600m typically.

GPS models, however, provide coverage anywhere in the UK. They are often the pricier option but offer complete peace of mind as they come with unlimited range.

If your elderly relative only faces fall or injury risks at home, base station models may suffice.

Battery life

Look for devices with long-lasting batteries, especially if the user is prone to forgetting to charge or change them.

Opting for a device that alerts the user or caregivers about low battery levels is also beneficial.

It’s usually recommended to proactively change or recharge batteries periodically to avoid the risk of them running out.

For context, Age Co’s pendant alarm has an estimated battery life of a whopping 5 years. It also self-tests its battery level and sends automatic alerts to Taking Care, which is Age UK’s telecare network.

Cost and subscription model

Costs can vary widely among providers. Some offer one-off costs with optional subscription plans.

Be wary of additional costs like setup fees or extra charges for using associated apps. The average cost ranges from £15 to £20 per month, with one-time fees between £50 and £150.

Here are some examples of current subscription costs (September 2023):

  • SureSafe: Subscription from approximately £11.99/mo, one-time fees up to £150.
  • Age UK: Subscription starts at approximately £17/mo, with £60 upfront fees.
  • LifeConnect24: Subscription starts at approximately £12.99/mo, with £35 one-time setup fees.
  • Careline: Subscription starts at approximately £15.99/mo, with £40 set-up fees.

GPS features

For those who spend much time away from home, GPS-enabled devices like Age Co’s Taking Care Anywhere GPS pendants can be invaluable.

GPS models generally cost more but offer the flexibility of 24/7 coverage anywhere in the UK.

Communication features

Some devices allow the user to communicate directly through the device, which is especially useful in emergencies when the user is far from the base station.

Age UK’s Taking Care Anywhere GPS pendant and Careline SOS are examples.

Additional features

Here are three additional features to consider:

  • Fall detection: Many devices offer automatic fall detection, alerting the caregivers or the monitoring service.
  • Phone line requirements: Some alarms require a phone line while others do not, which can be essential for those without a landline. The UK government is shutting down the copper phone line network by 2025, meaning all alarms must be digitally enabled. All reputable alarm brands are aware of this and are already making digital models the norm. Read more about this here.
  • App monitoring: Certain providers offer apps that help family and friends monitor the user’s activities, although this may come with extra charges.

Factors to consider about your parent or relative

Choosing the right personal alarm for an elderly relative is not solely about the device’s functionality.

It’s equally crucial to consider the specific needs, preferences, and limitations of the person who will be using it.

Here’s a more in-depth assessment of these aspects:

Living situation

Where your relative lives will greatly influence the kind of alarm that best suits their need.

For instance, those living in larger homes may require more extended-range devices.

Additionally, if they live alone, automatic features like fall detection might be more appropriate than systems requiring manual triggering.

If your relative is often walking, driving, or otherwise leaving the house alone, then GPS models are ideal.

Physical abilities

The physical abilities of your relative are a major consideration.

Factors such as eyesight, dexterity, and the presence of conditions like arthritis can impact how effectively they can use the device.

For example, smaller buttons may be hard to see or press. However, most alarms are designed with these factors in mind already.

Financial situation

While it’s tough to put a price on safety, financial limitations are a reality for most.

The costs of personal alarm systems can vary widely, and it’s essential to find a device that fits within you and/or your relative’s budget. Ongoing subscription fees are the one to watch out for, as these quickly rack up over time.

This includes both the initial cost and any ongoing fees for monitoring services. Read more about costs and tips for affordable solutions here.

Presence of a carer

If your relative has a carer living with them or visiting regularly, this could influence your choice.

For instance, some alarms allow for multiple contacts to be alerted in an emergency, including family members and professional caregivers.

Devices with two-way communication can also be useful in these cases, allowing the carer to assess the situation quickly.

Cognitive abilities

For relatives with cognitive impairments, such as dementia or Alzheimer’s, additional features like GPS tracking or geo-fencing can be invaluable.

These features can notify caregivers if the user leaves a designated ‘safe’ area, helping to quickly locate them if they wander.

Personal preferences

Lastly, don’t underestimate the importance of personal preference.

For instance, some people may find a wrist-worn device more comfortable and less stigmatising than a pendant.

In summary

Personal alarms boost safety, security and peace of mind.

Contrary to how many might feel, these devices can enhance freedom and enable elderly individuals to continue with their desired activities in the knowledge that they won’t be left stranded if they fall or injure themselves.

With the wide range of options available today, from basic alarms to those with advanced features like GPS tracking and automatic fall detection, there’s likely a perfect fit for your loved one’s unique needs and lifestyle.

Making the right choice involves more than just evaluating the device itself; it’s also about understanding your relative’s specific circumstances and limitations.

By considering these factors, you are much more likely to select a device that will be worn and used effectively.

Common questions

  • How do personal alarms work?

Personal alarms send an alert to a designated contact or monitoring centre when triggered manually by pressing a button or automatically through features like fall detection.

The aim is to ensure rapid response in emergency situations by bypassing the need to pick up a phone and dial a number. Since many alarms work via a simple button, they’re simple and fast to operate.

  • What type of fall alarm is best for someone with dementia or Alzheimer’s?

For someone with dementia or Alzheimer’s, a personal alarm with GPS tracking and geo-fencing features can be highly beneficial.

These features help caregivers locate the individual if they wander away from a designated safe area.

  • Can you get personal alarms on the NHS or through private insurance?

Some types of personal alarms might be available through the NHS through local schemes, although availability can be limited and may require a needs assessment. Use the government facility here to check.

Depending on the policy, private insurance may also cover some or all of the costs.

  • How much does a fall alarm cost?

The cost of a fall alarm can vary widely depending on its features and whether it comes with a subscription service for monitoring.

Generally, expect to pay anywhere from £15 to £20 per month for the service, with one-time set-up fees ranging from £50 to £150.

  • How long does it take for alarm companies to respond in an emergency?

Response time can be crucial in emergency situations. Most reputable alarm companies aim to respond within seconds of receiving an alert to ensure timely assistance.

  • Can fall alarms be used outside of the home?

Many modern personal alarms work outside, particularly those equipped with GPS tracking.

This makes them suitable for individuals who are still active and like to spend time outside the home.
If you don’t need GPS but need coverage across a large property and/or garden, ensure the base unit has sufficient range.

  • Can fall alarms be worn in the shower or bath?

Yes, many fall alarms are designed to be water-resistant or waterproof, making them suitable for use in the shower or bath. This is important, as many falls occur on slippery surfaces.

Terminology toolkit

  • Basic alarms: Devices that send an alert through a manually triggered button.
  • Automatic fall detection: a feature that uses sensors to detect falls and automatically sends alerts.
  • GPS tracking: Allows the location of the device wearer to be tracked in real-time.
  • Geo-fencing: A feature that sends alerts if the device exits a predefined ‘safe’ area.
  • Monitoring centre: A professional service that receives alerts from the personal alarm and takes appropriate action.
  • Subscription service: Ongoing fees for professional monitoring of the personal alarm.
  • Set-up fees: Initial costs for activating the service and, in some cases, installing equipment.
  • Two-way communication: A feature that allows direct voice contact between the user and the monitoring centre or designated contacts.

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