The Interesting History of Medical Alert Devices


Are you a senior or a family caregiver for an elderly loved one who wants to age in place? Medical alert systems are a key tool that enables older adults to maintain their independence while still assuring help in an instant if it is ever needed.

But how did these life-saving devices come to be? The history of assistive devices for the elderly is fascinating!

Let’s start with just how widespread these devices for seniors living alone or with a family caregiver really are. Worldwide, the medical alert industry reached $6.8 billion in 2021, but that is expected to rise to $11.1 billion by 2026, according to a recent survey. Much of this will be driven by the aging Baby Boomers, who will all be hitting their golden years at about the same time – and that’s just in the United States. The United Nations says that today, about 9% of the world’s population is 65 and older; by 2050, that number will nearly double to 16%.

It might also be driven by the improvements in the technology, which have changed over the years from a chunky pendant to a wide variety of sleeker and more sophisticated options, such as a delicate necklace or a handsome medical alert watch. There are also many more offerings for safety, including GPS location features, fall detection technology, and more.

But where did it all begin?

The History of Medical Alerts

The first communication devices for seniors were very rudimentary and go back hundreds of years. Though obviously the current technology didn’t exist yet, simple hand bells did. Someone in a sickroom might ring a bell to alert those around them that they needed help, and the bell meant that a family caregiver would materialize at the bedside, ready to provide assistance. But of course, these hand bells were limited to the sphere of sound around a person, and could often only be heard by those who were in very close proximity. Originally cast to mimic the bells found in church towers, the first hand bells were created in England sometime during the 17th century[1].

The telephone was the next wave of technology to contact someone in the event of an emergency. Telephones slowly made their way across the world in the 1900s. In 1914, there was one phone available for every ten people; that number doubled to one phone for every five people in 1945. By 1998, almost every home in the US had a phone[2]. But the problem was actually tied to one’s inability to get to a phone in an emergency, especially if a person was home alone. How could someone who had fallen in their kitchen or suffered severe injury reach a phone on the wall or in another room?

By then, however, professionals were on the move to create a better solution. In the 1970s, Wilhelm Hormann saw the need for a personal emergency response system, or PERS. He called it the “Haunsnotruf” which means “home alert” in his native German. At first, the idea was not a button alarm for home use; rather, it was designed as a way to record and share data in the biomedical field. However, the potential the devices had to allow individuals to stay safe and secure in their homes as they aged became clear. Hormann began working to make his panic button alarm available to all who needed it[3].

Soon a new market launched. The “emergency dialer” created by the American International Telephone Corporation provided individuals with a way to reach out for help if they needed it. This dialer was the first medical alert necklace, with a button alert to press that worked with a landline phone. The result of pressing the button was a message sent to a phone number programmed into the device. The problem was that the message was very simple and couldn’t be customized – and that it went to another landline phone as a point of contact. But what happened if that contact wasn’t home when the alert came through?

In part due to the proximity to a landline that was required for these devices to work, they were initially marketed to senior living homes and hospitals. Psychologist Andrew Dibner began his own medical alert company in 1974. On his mind was a family friend who had suffered a stroke in 1958. She lived alone and was not found for three days after the stroke, which greatly compromised her health and led to her death six months later[4]. When speaking about his device, Dibner told the New York Times, “People will have the assurance that they’re not alone.”

In 1980, more advanced versions of the devices were introduced, which allowed for more options. Now an alert from the pendant could go to emergency services if that’s what the user chose to program into the button. A few years later, live operators became a staple of the industry. By pressing the button, a senior could reach a live person through their speaker, which was connected to their landline. However, they had to be close enough to the base station to be heard when they spoke to an operator.

By 1989, the popular commercials for medical alerts began airing, with the unforgettable line, “I have fallen and I cannot get back up!” This commercial, created by one of the first medical alert companies, went on to be parodied over the ensuing years, but it also did exactly what it was meant to do – it got medical alert systems for seniors on the minds of millions, who then began to seriously consider whether they or their loved ones could benefit from PERS devices[5].

Medical Alert Technology Has Improved

The medical alert industry has offered better and better technology every year since. In fact, today’s medical alert devices are sleek and sophisticated, ranging from quite attractive pendants that can suit any attire to medical alert watches that look like any other wristwatch.

The technology inside those devices has grown by leaps and bounds. Today, many medical alert wireless solutions – like those offered by Alert1 Medical Alert Systems – can include a wide variety of tech:

·         The devices are water-resistant so they can be worn in the shower

·         They work with cellular connections rather than landline phones (though those that work with landlines certainly still exist)

·         GPS technology in the device can pinpoint your exact location and report that to emergency services

·         The batteries last a very long time (sometimes for years, depending on the device)

·         Automatic fall detection, using tiny fall sensors, can contact trained professionals for you without the need to press the button at all

·         Trained agents are standing by to help 24/7/365 (rather than the button making a general call to 911 or other emergency services)

Today, more than three million seniors in America have a medical alert device[6]. Family and professional caregivers consider a medical alert as the senior care product they’d most strongly recommend. There’s good reason for this: A survey by The Senior List found that 23% of respondents had suffered a fall within the past six months. Fortunately, among those who own fall detection devices, two-thirds of them wear the device every day, while 40% of them never take them off – so their peace of mind is always close at hand, even when outdoors, sleeping, or in the shower. Many seniors use a medical alert pendant but about 35% of elderly respondents went some other route, such as a wristband or watch[7].

A study in Forbes Health found that 86% of survey respondents said emergency alarms for seniors saved them from a serious incident at least once; among those, 50% say that using their device saved them from a potentially very serious emergency, and 36% say the device helped them get out of a situation that could have escalated into something more serious[8].

What Alert1 Medical Alerts Can Do For You

Alert1’s story began in Williamsport, Pennsylvania in 1988. A man named Paul Graafsma worried about his grandmother, a woman who lived by herself with no family nearby to help her in the event of an emergency. Graafsma began looking at medical alert systems on the market but was dismayed to find that none of them were truly affordable. So why not create his own, more reasonably priced option? That goal led to Alert1. Today, we offer some of the most affordable safety alarms for seniors, starting at under $20 a month, as well as a variety of other products to complement the alert devices, such as medication dispensers, lock boxes for the house key (to allow emergency services to get in if you can’t open the door) and even surge guards and monitored smoke detectors.

Our senior life-saving systems work by pressing a button that reaches out directly to our Command Center. There you’ll be connected with trained professionals who are well-versed in what to do when emergency calls comes in. Best of all, unlike many medical alert companies, they will always stay on the line with you until help arrives.

What if you can’t press your button after a fall? Our medical alert systems with fall detection can send an alert for you to let our professionals know that something is wrong and you need assistance. What if you don’t know where you are? If you opted for a medical alert device with GPS, the Command Center can pinpoint your location with good accuracy, so they know where to send assistance even if you are unable to communicate.

One of the most important aspects of an Alert1 Medical Alert system is the peace of mind it brings. The more peace of mind you have that help is literally a button away, the more confident you will feel in going about your day-to-day life. That confidence alone can make you safer. The time to get this life-saving device is now – not after you fall or experience some other emergency. Let us give you that peace of mind today, so you can enjoy healthier tomorrows and be certain that you will never face an emergency alone.