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There is assistance within your reach

The 76-year-old woman didn't realize she was having a stroke until she tried to stand up and fell to the floor. She managed to press the medical alarm button that was on a cord around her neck. Emergency vehicles arrived quickly at her St. Petersburg home, and she was taken to a nearby hospital. The woman's daughter credits the button with saving her mother's life. Few doubt the value of medical alarm systems. But in an industry where customers are often vulnerable to high-pressure sales tactics, it's wise to do some homework before making any decisions.

The systems can be purchased or leased, something many people don't realize. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) recommends leasing a system rather than buying. The systems can be expensive and there is sometimes the risk of a company going out of business without warning.

Purchasing a medical alert system can run between $700 and $4,000, which does not include the monthly monitoring fee. By contrast, leasing runs about $30 for installation and $15 to $30 a month for monitoring. Options such as fire and police emergency response would add to cost of the system, whether leased or purchased.

Developed in the mid-1970s as a way to monitor the frail or home-bound elderly, a medical alarm is an electronic, 24-hour surveillance system. If the person subscribing to the system falls or has a medical emergency, he or she can activate the system by pushing the button on a wireless communications unit worn on a cord around the neck or pinned to clothing.

A device installed on the telephone serves as a communication link between the button and a remote monitoring center, which calls for help.

All monitoring centers should have a system subscriber's vital information, including medications, special medical problems and names and phone numbers of neighbors and family.

Some older people balk at the idea of wearing a button because they believe it will infringe on their independence. But Priscilla Ingraham of the Geriatric Center at Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater says a medical alert system can liberate a person who lives alone and is afraid of falling. It allows them to stay in their home longer because they know that if something happened, help would soon be on the way.

An 87-year-old Clearwater woman began using a medical alarm four years ago,

after her husband died. Her sons, who live in the North, suggested it and she agreed. "I don't know if I feel more comfortable with it, but my children do," she says. "It's for the family's peace of mind."

One morning last year, when the woman was getting out of bed and not yet wearing her alert button, she fell. Fortunately, she was near the communicator on the telephone. Within minutes, two neighbors were at her house, helping her to her feet and calling emergency personnel.

Some providers of medical alarms say that they not only monitor emergency situations, but also end up acting as a sort of guardian over their customers' general health.

"I've had to call the children of some of my customers and tell them their mother or father needs more attention than an alarm system," says Carolyn Lease, president of Pinellas Medical Alarms in Clearwater.

Most companies that rent, lease or sell medical alarm systems are listed in the Yellow Pages under "medical alarms."

Several hospitals in the Tampa Bay area lease the Lifeline medical alarm system, one of the nation's oldest medical alarm companies. They are St. Anthony's in St. Petersburg, Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater, Mease Hospital in Dunedin, Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital in Tarpon Springs, East Pasco Medical Center in Zephyrhills and University Community Hospital in Tampa. Prices vary, but the average installation fee is about $30; the monthly monitoring fee averages about $20.

To subscribe to their services, call the main number of the hospital and ask for the Lifeline coordinator.

Neighborly Senior Services in Pinellas County also provides medical alarm systems to about 220 of its 1,900 mostly lower-income clients.

When trying to decide which system to subscribe to, find out:

Where the monitoring center is and who monitors the emergency calls. The 24-hour monitoring center should consist of a primary receiver, a back-up receiver, a clock, a printer, a back-up power supply and a telephone line monitor.

What procedures a response center follows when a call for help is received.

Whether service is reliable. Providers of medical alarm systems should update subscriber information every 30 to 60 days. They also should test the equipment regularly to be sure the batteries inside the alert buttons are working. Also ask whether there is a warning light that shines when the battery begins to fade.

If you decide to buy rather than lease, be sure you're getting a good deal.

Ingraham of Morton Plant Hospital advises people to invite a neighbor or friend to sit in on the sales presentation. "I had people calling me all the time, saying "so-and-so just called and they want to come to the house to sell me a system. They really bullied me,'

" Ingraham says. "Be careful."

Also, don't be swayed by sophisticated systems that may be hard to use and loaded with options that you'll never use. Beyond the basics, some systems have voice communicators so the person needing help can speak with the monitoring center. Others have timers that automatically send a signal if there is an extended period of inactivity in the home.

Then, before you make a decision, ask the sales person for 24 hours to think about it. Read the contract carefully.

However, people who subscribe to medical alarm systems should remember that they are for emergencies only. A Pinellas County fire/rescue truck and an ambulance recently were dispatched to a woman who had pressed her medical alert button only because she couldn't open her Meals on Wheels box.