Q: What can you tell me about emergency-response systems? My mom lives alone, and I'd like to get one for her but don't know the right questions...

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Q: What can you tell me about emergency-response systems? My mom lives alone, and I’d like to get one for her but don’t know the right questions to ask.

A: I used to think emergency-response systems were all alike — these are pendants you wear around your neck or wrist and press for help if you fall or can’t get out of your chair or tub. But like most items on the market, there are a variety of choices, and it pays to shop carefully.

Here are a few key questions:

• How long has the company been in business?

• Is this mainly a general alarm-monitoring business or is its primary focus frail older or disabled people?

• What are the costs for installation, and what are the monthly fees?

• How long is the company’s average response time?

• Does this system connect to a live person or simply dial 911?

• How far away from the communication device (that sends the alarm) can one be for it still to work, in other words: What is its range?

• How does the company handle background checks of the people who install and service its equipment?

• If the call center is long distance, are your calls toll free or charged to you?

“Our average client is an 82-year-old woman who lives alone,” says Harold Cole, director of lifeline for Visiting Nurse Services of the Northwest in Mountlake Terrace.

Often, he says, people come to his service after they’ve had their first emergency and they realize how vulnerable they are.

While you might have a neighbor or adult son who checks in on you occasionally, you can still have an accident in the yard or your home and not be found for days. That’s a primary use of these systems but there’s another. Let’s say you want to change a light bulb, but you have to climb a short ladder. You’re worried you might fall. With a response system that connects to a live person (rather than dials 911), you can push the button and ask the person who answers to stay on the line while you do the job or call again after it’s done to make sure you’re safe. The same is true while you get in and out of the bathtub (which is why you want to make sure your call button is waterproof!).

As Cole says, “When someone’s on the line, and you’re doing something a little frightening, you just feel safer.”

Another piece of equipment is available that reminds the older person to take medications, leave for a doctor’s appointment or get ready for the van to take her to the adult day center.

Should you rent or buy? Cole strongly recommends renting. Renting usually means the device will be serviced for free the entire time you have it, he says, and the equipment will be updated as technology changes.

Q: How long do most men live in nursing homes? I realize there are many variables but, what’s a ballpark average? How many years are we expected to survive in one? I’m a single parent shopping for long-term care insurance and wonder whether I should opt for coverage of one, two, four years or longer.

A: One of the hardest problems when you look at long-term care insurance is predicting the future. Since that’s not possible, you need to look at trends and probabilities. My first question: How old are you now? If you’re 25 or 30, you might well live to over 100. If you’re 60 or 70, you might live into your 90s or not, depending on all the variables you mentioned.

But the most pertinent question isn’t how long men survive in nursing homes. Today and in the future, nursing homes are being used much less compared with the past, a trend that I believe will continue. There are now so many care alternatives available — home care, assisted-living facilities, and adult family homes — that most of us will never live in a nursing home, despite needing a great deal of care for years.

In addition, because men tend to live shorter lives than women (although my dad outlived my mom, so that’s no guarantee), you might have a spouse someday who will care for you to the end — which is why women, especially, should consider buying long-term care insurance.

So I think the better question is: How long am I likely to need care anywhere? The best way to cover your bases is to buy a comprehensive policy that includes the different care settings, including home care, assisted living, adult family homes, and nursing homes. Most policies are like this today.

And next, look at what you can afford. If you can only afford premiums to cover two years, go for that. But if you’re looking to cover a longer period, shoot for three to six years or, better, lifetime (the most expensive).

Liz Taylor’s column runs Mondays in the Northwest Life section. A specialist on aging and long-term care, she consults with individuals and teaches workshops on how to plan for one’s aging and aging parents. E-mail her at growingolder@seattletimes.com or write to P.O. Box 11601, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/growingolder/.