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Bed Alarms: Types and Uses in Dementia

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Updated July 11, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

One kind of alarm that can be used for people who have Alzheimer's disease, vascular dementia, Levy body dementia, frontotemporal dementia or another kind of dementia is a bed alarm.

Purposes

Bed alarms are typically used for a couple of different reasons, but the basic idea is that an alarm sounds when someone is trying to get out or does get out of his bed.

  • Falls and Injury Prevention

    If you have a loved one that might try to get out of bed but who is at risk for falling, an alarm can alert you to her need for help. Depending on her condition, she might just need someone to give her a hand with balance or she may need significant physical assistance to get out of bed and safely bear weight. People with middle stage or late stage dementia may use poor judgment and forget that they can't walk well, and a bed alarm can increase the chance that you'll get there in time to provide help.

  • Wandering Prevention

    Some people living with dementia may try to get out of bed and either intentionally leave the home or facility they live in, or accidentally leave because they became lost and are looking for their way home. An alarm can help by emitting a sound so that you know that your loved one may be at risk for wandering since they're exiting the bed.

  • Need for Assistance with Using the Bathroom

    Others with dementia may need assistance with a care need. For example, if your husband with dementia needs to use the bathroom, he may awaken from his sleep and become restless. He may not be alert enough to ask you for assistance but just know that he needs to get out of bed. He may benefit from your guidance to the bathroom after the alarm sounds and then your help back to bed.

Types of Bed Alarms

  • Mattress Pad Alarms

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    This is a pad that is placed under the sheet. It responds to changes in weight and pressure by emitting an alarm. The sound will stop once the weight returns or the alarm is manually reset.

  • String Alarms

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    This type of alarm has a box-shaped unit with a string attached that you can clip onto the person's clothing on their shoulder. The box is typically mounted onto the headboard of the bed. If your loved one begins to move out of the bed, the string which is connected by a magnet to the box, pulls loose and causes the alarm to sound.

    String alarms can be an effective tool in alerting you to your loved one's needs, but there are a couple of risks. For people with dementia who are extremely agitated and perhaps suffering from paranoia and delusions, the string could pose a strangulation risk. Additionally, some people who are in the earlier to middle stages of Alzheimer's can figure out how to disconnect the clip from their clothing so that they can exit the bed unnoticed.

  • Passive InfraRed (PIR) Alarms

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    These alarms work by setting up a plane along side the edges of the bed. Once that plane is broken, an alarm sounds. The PIR alarms have a unit on the head board and foot board of each side of the bed. When the alarm goes off, you need to reset the alarm. These are typically quite effective but can result in some false alarms such as when just a leg flung over the side of the bed sets the alarm off.

Can't We Just Use Side Rails to Keep Someone in Bed?

No. Please don't use full side rails as a way to keep someone in bed. In the past, side rails were considered the remedy for keeping people in their beds. The thought was that full rails on both sides of the bed would stop those who want to get out of their bed from doing so since the rails would act like a big barrier.

While side rails effective in some cases, they also posed a very serious safety risk. There were several deaths and serious injuries that resulted from the use of side rails. The rails posed an entrapment risk since people would try to exit and become caught in the rails in such as way that they were not able to breath anymore. Others tried to simply go over the top of the rails and sustained far worse injuries such as hip fractures and head injuries than they would have if they had simply fallen out, or gotten out of bed. This is because when they went over top of the rails, they fell from a higher distance than the height of the bed.

In addition to the alarms outlined above, preventing injuries from a fall out of bed can also be facilitated by using a bed that goes low to the floor with mats on the floor in case they roll out of bed, or a raised edge mattress that provides a boundary for the side of the bed.

Sources:

Wisconsin Department of Human Services. Alert: Danger of Deaths Associated with Side Rail Use. http://www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/rl_dsl/publications/99-053.htm

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