A Guide to Medical Alert Systems

Just because your loved one is getting older doesn’t mean that they want to give up their independent lifestyle. Many seniors want to continue living at home and going about their daily routines without sacrificing their independence. But as seniors age, the risks associated with living independently increase. Every year, about 2.5 million adults over the age of 65 are treated in the ER for fall injuries in the United States. And of those falls, it’s estimated that 25,000 of result in death. Understandably so, caregivers worry about the wellbeing of their loved ones.

A medical alert system is an excellent option to help minimize the risks that older adults face while living alone and to give their caregivers a little extra peace of mind. A medical alert system will allow your loved one to receive the help that they need if a fall or other emergency does occur.

How Medical Alert Systems Work

Medical alert systems are wearable devices that connect the user with an emergency monitoring center with the simple push of a button. These devices are intended to provide seniors with easy access to emergency services, whenever and wherever they need it. Since the devices are wearable, seniors are more likely to be able to utilize them in emergency situations than a phone, which may be impossible to reach. In addition to medical emergencies, these devices can also be utilized in other emergency situations such as a house fire, a home robbery, or if the user becomes lost or disoriented.

While all medical alert systems serve the same purpose, some are monitored while others are unmonitored.

Types of Medical Alert Systems: Monitored

With a monitored medical alert system, a user that presses their personal help button will be connected to an emergency monitoring center. Some of these monitoring centers are independently owned and operated by the producers of the medical alert system while others are operated by a third-party company. Operators at these monitoring centers undergo extensive training in handling emergency calls and emergency procedures, so they’re well prepared to assist callers no matter what the emergency may be. If the user that called for help is able to speak, the operator will converse with them, assess the situation, and take the appropriate course of action. If the caller isn’t able to communicate, the operator will either dispatch emergency services to the caller’s location or follow the caller’s individual emergency action plan.

Many companies allow customers to set up an individual emergency action plan. For some customers, this might mean having 9-1-1 dialed immediately by an operator if the caller isn’t able to communicate, while for others it might mean that the monitoring center contacts the caller’s caregiver when the button is pressed. Many caregivers are more comfortable with monitored systems because they know that someone will be there for their loved one even when they’re not.

Types of Medical Alert Systems: Unmonitored

Unmonitored medical alert systems do not connect users with a live operator when the help button is pressed. Instead, pressing the call button connects users with pre-programmed contact numbers or emergency services when help is needed. This option is great for seniors who are not at great risk for a medical emergency but would still benefit from having an easy way to get in touch with their loved ones if something should happen.

The contacts that a user selects can be anyone from a relative to a neighbor, or 9-1-1. Depending on the device, callers may be able to communicate with their contacts directly while other systems play a recorded message informing the contact that the button has been pressed and that the user may be in need of help.

Where Medical Alert Systems Work

There are medical alert systems available to meet the needs of seniors with varying activity levels, from those who are housebound to those who travel independently. Before beginning the purchase process for a medical alert system, it is important to decide which system type is the best to suit you or your loved one’s needs: in-home or mobile systems.

Medical Alert Systems for In-Home Protection

In-home systems are designed to protect seniors who spend the majority of their time inside their own homes. These types of systems usually come with a base station that connects over a cellular network or through a landline, along with a wearable help button. The base station is usually placed in a central location where it can be heard throughout the entire home.

When users press their help button, a signal is sent through the base station to call the emergency monitoring center or the user’s preferred contacts. Users then communicate with operators through the base station, which has a two-way speaker designed to reach throughout most users’ homes. Systems come with different ranges, so it is something to be aware of, especially if you live in a larger home. Some systems offer speakers and microphones built directly into the wearable device which can be a helpful feature for seniors who live in a larger home or spend time in their yards.

Landline-Based System

These systems use a home’s existing landline to connect the base station with the monitoring center. Users must have a working landline in their home in order to use this type of system.

Cellular System

For those that don’t have a working landline in their home, a cellular system is an alternative option. These systems come equipped with cellular service, most commonly with AT&T and other national networks, so no landline is required. Some companies may charge an extra fee for in-home systems with cellular connection versus the landline-based systems.

Medical Alert Systems for On-the-Go Coverage

Active seniors who regularly spend time outside of the home independently or enjoy traveling should consider mobile systems. These medical alert systems are fully portable, come equipped with a cellular connection, and will work anywhere with cellular coverage. Users still need to wear a help button, but they don’t need to be within the range of a base station for the devices to function properly. The speaker is built directly into the wearable device so users are able to communicate anywhere.

Feature In-Home Systems Portable Systems
Can be used as a monitored device to connect with the emergency monitoring center Yes Yes
Can be used as an unmonitored device to easily connect with friends and family Yes Yes
Can run on a landline Yes No
Can use a cellular connection Yes Yes
Extra fee for a cellular connection Sometimes No
Good coverage for active seniors No Yes

Paying for a Medical Alert System

Based on the type of system you chose and the features you select, the cost of a medical alert system can vary quite a bit. Individual companies also have their own pricing structures for their products.

Instead of agreeing to a long-term contract, you’ll typically sign up for service for a prespecified amount of time – monthly, quarterly, semi-annually, or annually. If you choose to pay quarterly or annually, some companies will offer a discounted price, but you may be locked into the service for that period of time.

When you purchase a medical alert system, you’re typically renting the device and paying a monthly subscription for the monitoring service. Since you don’t actually own the equipment, you’ll need to return it when you’re done with it. There are some companies that offer systems for purchase.

It’s important to note that Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurance usually don’t cover the cost of a medical alert system. But certain insurance policies in some areas may offer some assistance, so it’s important to check your individual policy to find out whether or not the systems are eligible for coverage.

Speaking to a company representative is the best way to ensure you’re clear on what you are signing up for and to avoid falling victim to scams or other dishonest marketing tactics. You should always ask about anything you don’t fully understand and make sure you’re comfortable with the company’s payment structure and policies. Before signing a contract with any medical alert company, always be sure to ask about these things:

  • Price Locks: Find out if the company’s price can vary in the future. Many companies lock you in at the rate you sign up for, but it’s always a good idea to check and make sure your cost won’t increase.
  • Extra Fees: Always ask if there are any extra start-up fees that aren’t revealed in the advertised price. Some companies are not transparent when it comes to things like activation fees or shipping costs. Extra fees like this can add up quickly, greatly increasing the price of the device.
  • Contracts: Some companies will try to lock you into a long term contract. Since situations can change without warning, it’s a good idea to avoid these types of agreements.
  • Cancellation and Return Policy: Find out if the company charges a cancellation fee. Some companies may even charge expensive shipping fees for equipment returns. However, in many cases, companies will allow you to cancel at any time even if you’ve paid for a year in advance. You should try to choose a company that permits you to cancel at any time.
  • Device Replacement: Accidents happen, and sometimes devices get lost or damaged, so you should ask about the company policy regarding device replacement or repairs. Some companies offer protection plans for a small monthly fee that ensure you won’t face an expensive fee if anything happens to your device.
  • Discounts or Financial Assistance: While you usually can’t use your insurance to cover the cost of a medical alert device, other discounts may be available. Some companies offer discounts if you pay in advance for longer periods of time. Others may have discounted rates if you’re a veteran or have a membership with an organization like AAA or AARP.

Other Cost Considerations

  • Think about the long-term costs. It’s usually better to choose a company with a reasonable one-time fee if the monthly cost is lower as it will save you money over time.
  • For accessories, it’s generally better to purchase them outright or pay a one-time fee than paying leasing fees each month. This usually makes them less expensive in the long run.
  • If you’re paying for a longer period of time (like annual payments) check to see if the company offers prorated refunds so that you can avoid losing money on prepaid months if you do decide to cancel.

Who Can Benefit from a Medical Alert System

There is no one right time to start using a medical alert system – it will vary from person to person. But whenever possible, it’s a good idea to have your loved one start wearing it before a major event ever occurs and to have it as a preventative measure. These signs might suggest that it’s a good time for your loved one to start wearing a medical alert device:

  • Your aging loved one lives independently and you worry about them getting help during an emergency.
  • You sometimes find it hard to get in touch with your loved one and worry they do not keep their phone readily available.
  • Your loved one has recently fallen or had an episode of illness or another incident (such as a stroke or surgery).
  • Your loved one sometimes becomes confused or disoriented.
  • Your loved one lives too far away from family or friends for anyone to check-in on them on a regular basis.

Medical Alert Systems Extra Features to Look For

In addition to emergency monitoring, many medical alert systems offer extra features. Though not needed by all seniors, these features can add an extra layer of protection and help keep your loved one safe.

Automatic Fall Detection

Some medical alert systems offer automatic fall detection. With this technology, the wearable device is equipped with sensors that are able to detect when the user may have fallen down and might be incapacitated. Instead of the user pressing the call button themselves, a call is immediately triggered to the emergency monitoring center.

Who Fall Detection is Best For

Automatic fall detection is an excellent feature for seniors who are prone to falls or that have a history of prior falls. If your loved one has trouble with balance, an illness that’s made them weaker, or an injury that may make them prone to falling, automatic fall detection could help save their life.

Location Tracking

With location tracking, wearable devices are equipped with a GPS sensor and operate over a cellular network. This technology allows the emergency monitoring staff to see exactly where the user is when an emergency occurs, no matter where they are. Many also include on-demand tracking for caregivers, which allows caregivers to check in on their loved one’s location in real-time.

Who Location Tracking is Best For

Location tracking is ideal for seniors who are active and are frequently away from home – if an emergency occurs away from home, they’ll be able to get the help they need, even if they don’t know exactly where they are. It’s also a helpful feature for seniors who have memory impairment and may tend to wander away from the home or become easily confused and disoriented.

Medication Alerts

Some medical alert systems are able to remind seniors that it is time to take their medication and some are even able to automatically dispense. Medication alerts may be programmed through a separate device or the user’s in-home base station, but medication dispensing always requires users to purchase or lease an additional device.

Who Medication Alerts are Best For

Medication alerts are a good option for seniors who need to take medications at a certain time of the day and may be prone to forgetting whether or not they already took their medication. It can also help seniors with complex medication schedules that may be hard to manage on their own. This feature sets caregivers minds at ease, knowing that their loved one will always have a reminder to take their medication, and with dispensers, they know that they’ll be taking the correct dosage.

Activity Tracking

Some medical alert systems are capable of monitoring activity. If no movement is detected for a set period of time, the device will trigger a call to the monitoring center to make sure that the user is okay.

Who Activity Tracking is Best For

Activity tracking is ideal for seniors who may be recovering from an injury or prone to falling. This way, the caregivers will know if their loved one hasn’t been active and may need help.

Tips for Choosing the Right Medical Alert System

There are many medical alert systems on the market, each one a bit different from the next. It is important to think about which specific features you need for yourself or your loved one and focus on finding a system that includes the features you desire. Before choosing a company and system, be sure to consider the following factors.

Questions to Ask Yourself

  • In-Home or Mobile System: Do you need a device that will provide protection on the go?
  • Monitored or Unmonitored: Who would you like the user to be able to contact in the event of an emergency – a loved one or an emergency dispatcher?
  • Landline or Cellular Connection: If you’re looking for an in-home system, which type of connection do you need?
  • Fall Detection: Is your loved one prone to falls?
  • Activity and Location Tracking: Does your loved one venture away from the house or travel independently?
  • Medication Reminders or Check-In Calls: Would your loved one benefit from being reminded to take their medication? Would you be more comfortable if someone was routinely calling to check in?
  • Accessories: Would your loved one benefit from additional accessories like a wall button or a lockbox?

Questions to Ask the Companies

  • Battery Life: How often does the mobile system need to be charged? Is there a backup battery for an in-home base station?
  • Range: How far does the in-home base station reach?
  • Extra Features: Are fall detection, activity tracking, medication reminders, etc. available?
  • Water Resistance: Is the device water resistant? Can it be worn in the shower?
  • Caregiver Support: Is there a caregiver portal or other support tools available?
  • Monitoring: Is the monitoring system U.S.-based? How are operators trained? Is help available around-the-clock?

Medical Alert Systems to Consider

Bay Alarm Medical Bay Alarm Medical offers a unique in-car device that’s perfect for seniors that drive independently and travel away from home. In addition to the standard help button, the device is equipped with a GPS location tracking service and is also capable of detecting crashes. Through a mobile app, family members and caregivers are also able to monitor their loved one’s location at any time. The company also offers several extra features including a lock box, wall buttons, and extra wearable buttons.
Medical Guardian Medical Guardian offers a variety of premium device options, making them an excellent choice for caregivers who want more than the standard emergency monitoring service. Customers can choose from devices that offer advanced technology such as activity tracking, a mobile app, and voice-activated wall buttons. They also offer a smartwatch device that allows users to send and receive SMS messages. There are no long-term contracts and you’ll receive prorated refunds for any months that were prepaid if you cancel.
Medical Care Alert Medical Care Alert is an ideal choice for anyone seeking extremely experienced monitoring center operators. The monitoring centers are located in New York and California and all of the operators are EMT/EMD certified. They also complete an extensive training program certified by the Security Industry Association and Spanish-speaking operators are always available. All of their devices are water resistant and shower-proof. There is a 14-day trial period where users can test any device free of charge and there are never any cancellation fees.
Philips Lifeline Philips Lifeline is an excellent option for seniors that need a little extra help managing their medication regimen. Users preprogram their medication schedule into the device and receive a reminder when it’s time to take a dose. With the simple push of a button, the station dispenses the correct dosage. This system also alerts the user and their loved ones when a dose is missed, helping users to stay on schedule every day.