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Home & garden.

12 November 2021

Personal alarms at home

Personal alarms can help people who live alone feel safer and more secure by providing contact to the outside world in the event of an emergency.
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Which?Editorial team

What are personal alarms?

Personal alarms allow people to call for assistance if they have an accident or a fall at home. They can help older and less abled people to feel safer at home, and to remain independent for longer. They can also offer peace of mind to family and friends.

Personal alarms are simple to use. They often feature one big button that can be pressed to get help quickly if the user has a problem. They can be worn 24 hours a day. Despite the simple design, they can potentially be a life-saving device if someone has a fall or some other accident when they are alone.

There are several different types of alarms available:

  • basic alarms, which rely purely on a loud noise to alert people nearby 
  • pendant alarms connected to a 24/7 emergency response centre – some enable two-way communication in an emergency
  • fall detector, available as a separate device or as an additional feature built into a personal alarm
  • GPS tracking alarm for people with dementia, designed to help family carers keep track of someone’s whereabouts.

Personal alarms with 24-hour monitoring 

These devices are linked via a standalone unit to a 24-hour monitoring service or to a carer, either in your home or elsewhere.

They feature a simple push button pendant that can be worn around the neck, attached to the wrist like a watch strap or clipped to a belt or clothing. They can also be attached to a mobile phone as an emergency button incorporated into the case. Some services include an extra unit to keep on a bedside table for easy access when in bed.

A number of systems also incorporate a fall detector. This means that if you were to fall over, the unit will automatically send an alert to the call centre or carer that is responding. You can read more about fall alarms below.

Once a call for assistance is sent, some units also allow you to be found via a GPS system. If you’re caring for someone who has dementia and can lose their direction and fail to return home, you can locate them using this device.

Fall detectors

As we age, the chances of suffering a fall increase. A fall alarm gives you reassurance that if you do have a fall, help will be available as quickly as possible. 

A fall alarm is very similar to a personal alarm. The key difference being that it doesn’t always have to be operated by the person wearing it. Instead, it can use an in-built motion sensor to detect any unexpected fall or downward motion and then send an alert to a call centre or a loved one. Some models allow you to talk directly to the call centre via a two-way speaker.

Most are lightweight and can be worn on the wrist, as a pendant around the neck or clipped on to clothing. Most can be worn in bed, in the bathroom or out and about. Many providers offer models that combine a fall alarm and personal alarm in a single device.

The NHS has advice about helping older people to avoid falls.

Lifeline alarms

Some local authorities operate community alarm systems for older or disabled residents, sometimes called a lifeline alarm service. There is likely to be a charge for using the service, but this may be subsidised or even free for those assessed as having eligible needs.

Contact your local authority’s social services team to find out what they offer.

How much does a personal alarm cost?

Whether you choose a personal alarm, fall alarm or both, if you want to be connected to a 24/7 monitoring service, there will be an ongoing weekly or monthly charge.

The service charge for a personal alarm with monitoring generally ranges from around £120 to £200 per year (excluding VAT). You can pay monthly or annually, with the annual fee working out cheaper than paying a monthly fee. You’ll also usually have to pay an initial, one-off fee for equipment and setup, which can cost anywhere from about £35 to £200.

An alarm that is purely a falls detector is at the lower end of the price range. But an alarm package with an integrated falls alarm will be more expensive than a basic alarm. 

It’s worth checking whether your local authority offers a lifeline alarm service, as this may be less expensive than going through a private provider.

Will I have to pay VAT?

Telecare and personal alarms for older people are eligible for VAT relief in the UK if the person using the equipment is disabled or has a long-term illness and any of the following three statements apply: 

  • you have a physical or mental impairment that affects your ability to carry out everyday activities
  • you have a condition such as diabetes or arthritis that’s treated as chronic sickness
  • you are terminally ill.

You don’t qualify if you’re able-bodied or are temporarily disabled.

Find more about VAT reductions and exemptions for disabled people and people aged over 60 on Gov.uk

How to choose the right personal alarm

Personal alarms are available from a large number of organisations, including local authorities, charities such as Age UK (provided by Taking Care) and commercial companies.

See our guide to telecare for a list of some of the main personal alarm and telecare companies in the UK. You can also search for local personal alarms providers endorsed by Which? Trusted Traders.

What should I look for in a personal alarm?

Think about what type of equipment and level of service you require, as there’s no point paying for more than you need. Here are some of the key things to consider.

  • Subscription fee: if you opt for an alarm that’s linked to a monitoring service, you’ll usually need to pay an ongoing subscription fee, in addition to any setup charge. This fee may be charged on a yearly or monthly basis and there may be an additional cost if you want extra services, such as a fall detector.
  • Range: check the distance range if you plan to wear it in the garden; also check your ability to hear the response centre.
  • Batteries: ask how long the batteries will last for; how will you know if they’re running low and whose responsibility is it to replace them? What happens in the event of a power cut?
  • Emergency numbers: how many can you have?
  • Mobile phone alarms: if you don’t have a landline, there are options for alarms that operate from a SIM card.
  • Is it waterproof?: if you choose a wearable device, you’ll probably want to wear it in the bathroom.
  • Security: you might need a keysafe (a lockable box outside your home with a spare door key inside) so that authorised people can get into your home if the alarm is sounded. You can buy these separately or from the company providing the personal alarm. We strongly recommend that you buy a police-approved keysafe.
  • False alarms: if you are concerned about accidentally calling for help, find out how easy it is to cancel a false alarm.

Personal alarms and telecare

If you’re shopping around for a personal alarm, you’ll probably come across the phrase ‘telecare’. Essentially, this means technology that can remotely monitor someone’s activity (usually in their home) and send an alert to a call centre or carer when needed.

Our guide to telecare explains the more sophisticated systems that can combine a personal alarm with various sensors, such as movement sensors or heat sensors. This can alert a carer about a range of situations, such as if you leave the property, slip out of your bed or chair, or appear to be inactive for too long.