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Medical Alert Devices to the Rescue

These gadgets really can help when you've fallen and can't get up

En español | Veteran journalist Daniel Schorr was putting his shoes on when the stool collapsed, slamming his head into the bedroom doorframe at his Washington, D.C., home. Bleeding profusely, he called out to his wife several times, but she was making breakfast downstairs with the radio on and didn't hear him.

Schorr, then 93 and a senior news analyst for National Public Radio, pushed the button on his medical emergency alert pendant. Within seconds his wife, Lisbeth, 79, received a call from a George Washington University Hospital operator who said, "We got an alert signal. Is anything wrong?" Lisbeth ran upstairs and found Daniel lying in a growing pool of blood. The operator stayed on the line while Lisbeth stanched the bleeding enough to help her husband into the car and to the emergency room.

The device really proved its worth, says Lisbeth, recalling that morning in April 2010, three months before her husband's death from unrelated causes. He had worn it every day for several years. "The kids and I insisted," she says, referring to the couple's two grown children. "He was getting frail. That caused us to worry."

Personal emergency alert devices, such as the Philips Lifeline pendant Daniel Schorr used, can help older adults to remain independent and in their own homes. The devices also are reassuring to adult children who know that if an aging parent suffers a fall or, worse, a stroke or heart attack, immediate help and medical attention will be summoned.

But doctors, aging experts and even company officials emphasize that while medical alert systems can save lives, the key to their success is a motivated user. The much-mimicked "Help, I've fallen and I can't get up" TV commercials raised awareness of the problem but also created a stigma, they say.

"The 80-year-old woman lying on the ground, screaming for help — who wants to be that person?" says Casey Pittock, chief operating officer of Wellcore, a personal emergency response system manufacturer.

Falling and the fear of falling

Falls among older people are a huge problem. More than one in three adults 65 and older will fall in a given year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Two-thirds will fall again within six months. Falls can result in debilitating injuries such as broken hips and head trauma. Moreover, people who fall and lie helpless for hours or days can suffer serious complications, including dehydration, hypothermia, pressure ulcers, muscle breakdown and renal failure, says geriatrician and associate professor Bruce Kinosian, of the University of Pennsylvania.

The elderly mother of Ventura County, Calif., psychiatrist Marc Rosenthal, 58, was discovered alone in her bedroom, dehydrated, injured and barely conscious a full day after she suffered a fall and stroke last June.

Because of the delayed discovery, "she had missed the window in which strokes can be aggressively treated to minimize or counter the effects of interrupted blood flow to the brain," Dr. Rosenthal says. His mother, who before the stroke had no serious health conditions, now lives with him and his wife.

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