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HomeTech Tips: Tech Tools for an Emergency

When you need help; Tech tools for an emergency

By Lincoln Spector with photographs by Nancy Rubin


In our high-tech age, how do we choose the right emergency response system? There are so many devices to choose from!

In late October, Dr. Richard Caro, Founder and Director of Tech-enhanced Life, spoke in Berkeley about aging and technology, and especially the devices you can use in an emergency when you need help. Tech-enhanced Life is a Public Benefit Corporation that works "to improve the quality of life of older adults and their families." Ashby Village and the University of California Berkeley Retirement Center co-hosted the talk.

Dr. Caro started with an aging problem that wouldn't require an emergency responder: opening a jar. Many elders have problems with that once-simple task. Caro and his organization's Longevity Explorersexperimented with various jar-opening devices. They discovered that there's no one best device, because people have different problems with jars. Some can't grip the top properly; others can't get the leverage. The solution must fit the person.

Dr. Caro pointed out that the same is true for medical alert devices.


Devices when you need help

The oldest and simplest device to bring paramedics to the rescue is a pendant, usually worn around the neck, with one simple button to call for help. Dr. Caro commented that these devices tend to be unattractive, and many people hesitate to wear them, fearing that these devices pronounce that they’re a near invalid. Indeed, a woman in the Berkeley audience asked why they couldn't look "nice."

Do we still need these pendants when there are other options for a medical alert? Dr. Caro pointed out that "media says old people don't like smartphones and gadgets,” but when he asked how many in the audience have smartphones, most people raised their hands! Of course, smartphones are not necessarily the perfect tool for medical alerts. Unlocking the screen and calling the right number may be too much if you're disoriented. And if you want to dictate to your phone – using Siri on an iPhone, for example – your phone may not understand you! (Dr. Caro admitted that Siri has problems with his Australian accent.)

Still other device types have their own virtues and faults. You can simply talk to a voice-activated device like Amazon's Alexa, but, as Dr. Caro commented, it won't work if you're in the backyard or if you can’t speak clearly. A smartwatch has promise for medical alerts, because, like a pendant, it's almost always with you. And as Caro pointed out, "People don't look at it and think, ‘he’s old.’" But there is often a steep learning curve for smartwatches.

Your decisions

Dr. Caro emphasized that picking the right type of device is only one of the many decisions you’ll need to make when picking the right emergency response system for you.

Who should get your electronic call for help – friends? family? caregivers? medical personnel?  You’ll need to consider whom to call, who is likely to answer their phone, and whether the response system may be overloaded.

Do you want your alert device to know your location? Dr. Caro pointed out that these devices "can't work if they don't know where you are,” but you may have concerns about privacy.

Are you willing to pay to subscribe to a responder call center that will direct your call as you wish?

Do you need automatic fall detection?

How often do you need to charge the battery, and will you remember to charge it?

Is a waterproof device important to you?

More information

I found the talk useful and informative. All the content covered in Dr. Caro’s presentation, as well as a handy “selection tool,” can be accessed by clicking this section of the Tech-enhanced Life website. If you’re interested in learning more about the work of Tech-enhanced Life, visit the larger website by clicking here.