If you have a family member with Alzheimer’s disease, you may wonder if medical alert systems are a good idea, specifically because of their dementia. However, experts say that medical alerts for those with dementia can be lifesaving. Designed to signal an emergency and elicit immediate medical attention or alert family members, an alert system can help your loved one, even if they have dementia, and provide invaluable psychological assurance that they’re safe.
For people who have dementia or cognitive impairment, using a medical alert system or personal emergency response system (PERS) may be trickier once dementia has progressed. “If an individual has a milder cognitive impairment, such as is commonly present in the early stages of dementia, having access to a medical alert system device can be quite helpful and allow the individual to retain more independence,” says Karin Celosse, a Psy.D. based in the Orange County area of California and clinical manager at Executive Mental Health.
Medical alerts: A catch-22 for patients with dementia?
Medical alert systems for those with dementia may seem like a catch-22 at first glance. Your loved one needs the secure link to medical assistance that an alert system can provide, but with impaired memory, they may have trouble communicating their emergency, using the alert system, getting to their base unit, or remembering to push the button worn around their neck.
Seniors with dementia may instead need a system with a simple interface and easy two-way communication. “There are a variety of medical alert “systems” and devices, and the specific type can be chosen based on the individual’s needs,” says Dr. Celosse.
What to look for when shopping for a medical alert system for those with dementia
Depending on your loved one’s condition, choosing the right medical alert system is imperative. Studies show that using an IoT (Internet of Things) monitoring and fall detection device can relieve caretakers’ stress and enhance life for people with dementia.
In cases where your loved one had an alert system in place before a dementia diagnosis or in the early stages of their diagnosis when memory is only mildly impaired,, there may be a chance that they’ll be able to continue using the medical alert system successfully.
On the other hand, if they haven’t had any experience with an alert system, or their memory is more severely impaired, it’s not likely they’ll have success with implementing a difficult-to-use new system. They may forget to use it, take it off, or become confused about how it works. In this case, a medical alert with fall detection may be a great alternative to one that the wearer must activate. If wearing such a device doesn’t cause any concern or anxiety, this may be the best way to help your loved one with dementia use a medical alert system.
Since dementia impairs memory, problem-solving, and thinking abilities like decision-making that can affect communication, an emergency like falling, getting hurt, or lost, requires a medical alert system for those with dementia that can be more easily activated than traditional alert systems. Devices that are monitored and include GPS tracking are recommended because users could have issues explaining the emergency, disclosing important information due to their impairment, or wandering.
Many medical alert services are aware of this and require the user’s family or caregiver to list existing medical conditions and overall health, including the severity of dementia.
Some systems will allow the user to push a button during an emergency, which immediately engages two-way communication so the individual can state the emergency. But if there is no further communication, assistance is dispatched, and on-file records help to indicate the known health problems. Some devices also include wandering alerts and family notifications.
*All individuals are unique. Your results can and will vary.
Dr. Celosse explains that some systems are based on a simple and integrated phone app, which would require a higher level of cognitive ability to recall how to access it, while others use a small device on a lanyard worn around the neck or wrist and simply require pushing a button (or they detect falls automatically). “The latter is likely the best choice for individuals who either struggle with technology or might have a slightly more impaired memory,” she says.
Reevaluate the best medical alert systems for those with Alzheimer’s
Because dementia is a disease of progression, you or your loved one’s caregivers should regularly reevaluate the medical alert system in use to ensure that your family member can still activate the system. You may find an updated system is needed as dementia progresses and that a medical alert system that worked at first may no longer be as effective as your loved one’s dementia progresses, they become non-verbal, remove wearables, or have other issues.
“It is also important to consider that for safety reasons, if an individual has or progresses to more than a milder cognitive impairment, it would be vital for them to have the added layer of in-home support via a caregiver or sitter or a higher level of group care assistance,” says Dr. Celosse. In addition, wearing a medical ID bracelet signaling dementia can help first responders identify the condition.
When it comes to finding the best PERS for your family member with dementia, take their capabilities into account, reevaluate frequently, and search out the features that work best for your loved one at each stage. When trying to keep a loved one safe, medical alert systems for those with dementia are one great way to go about it. With the added peace of mind that your loved one can trigger an emergency response if they wander, fall, or become injured or sick, these devices can help provide a much-needed safety net.
Dr. Karin Celosse, Psy.D., MS,
Clinical Manager, Executive Mental Health
Melendy A. Britt | Director of Marketing & Communication
 Dementia Patient Activity Monitoring and Fall Detection Using IoT for Elderly. International Journal of Trend in Scientific Research and Development. (2019) https://www.researchgate.net/publication/334123609_Dementia_Patient_Activity_Monitoring_and_Fall_Detection_using_IoT_for_Elderly
 What you Need to Know When Considering a Medical Alert Device for Persons with Dementia. Dementia Care Central. National Institute on Aging. (2019) https://www.dementiacarecentral.com/medical-alert/alzheimers