Medical alert systems can give you and your loved one’s peace of mind and can provide you with emergency medical help if you ever need it.
But with so many to choose from, it can be hard to know where to start when looking for the best system. Below, we’ll cover a little about how medical alert systems work, what features they have, and some things to consider before choosing one.
To choose the best medical alert system for you, consider:
- Your current medical conditions and how they might progress with time
- Whether you are homebound or mobile
- Your comfortability with, and ability to use new technology
- Whether you prefer cell phones or landline telephones
- What additional features you’d like from a system
- How much you’re able to pay for a system
What Are Medical Alert Systems?
Medical alert systems are devices that connect the user with caregivers or emergency services in the event of an emergency.
Some systems, called monitored systems, will connect the user to an operator. The operator will speak to the user through the device, and depending on the situation, will contact the user’s:
- Friends or neighbors
- Emergency services
Other systems, called unmonitored medical alert systems, call a list of emergency contact numbers for the user. If the emergency contacts answer the call, they can speak to the user through the device. If no emergency contacts answer the call, then emergency personnel are sent to the user.
Some medical alert systems have additional features, like:
- Fall detection: if the device detects a fall, it will have an operator try to contact you. If you don’t respond, emergency services personnel are sent to you
- GPS: if you are wearing the device away from home and need assistance, the device will tell emergency personnel where to find you
- Waterproof device to wear in the shower or bath
Medical alert systems are connected wirelessly to your telephone or cellular phone, and use your phone service to make the calls to operators and emergency services.
How Do I Choose a Medical Alert System?
When it comes to choosing the best medical alert system, take some time to think about your personal situation. This will help you narrow down the system that will work best for you.
Here are some questions to ask yourself to help you decide.
Are You Physically Active?
If you regularly leave the house alone for walks or errands, you might prefer a mobile system rather than a home-based one.
This way, you will be protected no matter where you are. The system will be able to tell emergency personnel where you are if you’re not at home.
If you’re homebound or don’t really leave the house unattended, a traditional home-based system might work just fine for you.
Home-based systems tend to be less expensive, but they only provide protection inside the home.
Whichever system you choose, make sure you ask what the system’s range is.
Do You Forget Where You Are?
If you have a condition that causes you to forget where you are, a system with a GPS tracker can be useful.
This way, if you activate the device, emergency personnel will be able to find you even if you’re unable to tell them where you are.
Are You a Fall Risk?
People with balance issues, or other conditions which make them more likely to fall, often like the security that comes from a system with fall detection.
These devices are triggered by movement, and if the user falls while wearing it, an operator is alerted.
The operator will speak to you through the device and ask if you need emergency services. If you don’t answer, emergency services will be called right away.
Fall detection is also helpful for people who are unable to get up on their own if they do fall, even if they don’t fall often.
Even if you don’t consider yourself a fall risk, it’s important to keep in mind that a third of adults fall at least once a year, according to MedLine Plus.
Are You on Medication?
Some devices are able to remind you when to take medication. If you have trouble keeping all your pill times straight, this might be a helpful feature.
Taking medication as prescribed by a doctor is important for maintaining health, but over half of seniors are non-compliant with their doctor’s orders.
Do You Have Trouble Communicating on the Phone?
If you have trouble communicating on the phone due to hearing loss or speech impairment, you might consider getting a system that accounts for this.
Many systems, for example, will allow you to set up a plan in advance if you need to use the device.
This way, operators will know to call emergency services right away if you activate the device, or whatever action you choose for them to take.
How Are Your Fine Motor Skills?
Every emergency alert device is a little different. If you want a smaller, more discrete device, many are available.
However, if you have limited fine motor skills or other conditions that might make it hard for you to push a small button, choose a device that will work better for you, like one that uses a switch instead.
Do You Have a Condition That Will Get Worse Over Time?
When choosing a medical alert system, it’s important to consider the reason that you’re getting one.
If you have a degenerative condition or one that is likely to worsen over time, choose a system that will still work well if your condition worsens.
Symptoms to consider:
- Forgetfulness and wandering: a GPS tracker might be useful if you’re unable to remember where you are
- Trouble communicating: A pre-planned system set in place if you press the ‘help’ button and are unable to answer the operator
- Loss of fine motor skills: will pushing a smaller button be difficult for you?
- Balance problems: fall tracking detection is helpful if you’re a fall risk
- Trouble getting up: if you do fall, are you usually able to get back up on your own?
Even if these symptoms are minimal now, they might get worse over time.
Regardless of your situation, it’s always a good idea to think about the future, and what system will be good for you now, and several years down the road.
Do You Prefer Landline Telephones or Cell Phones?
Medical alert systems can be connected to either a traditional telephone or a cell phone.
If you don’t like cell phones, you might be better off getting a system that can be hooked up to a landline.
If, on the other hand, you don’t have a landline anymore and only have a cell phone, the obvious solution is to get a system that will work with your cell phone.
One thing to consider, though, is where you live. Do you have good cell phone reception? If not, it might be worth hooking the system up to a landline for added stability.
Unless you live in a very rural area, cell phone reception in more places is good enough to safely use an emergency alert system.
How Tech-Savvy Are You?
Medical alert systems have come a long way with the improvement of technology. Nowadays, there are systems to suit every need and lifestyle.
There are even systems that connect to smartwatches and allow for video calling with friends and family, and much more.
But having a lot of extra features won’t help someone who’s not comfortable with new technology, especially if there are cognitive impairments to be considered.
Be sure to get a system and device that you’re comfortable using, and that you’re confident you’ll know how to work during an emergency situation.
How Much Are You Able to Spend on the System?
Unfortunately, the cost is something you have to consider when getting a medical alert system. These systems come in all shapes and sizes, and naturally, all price ranges, too.
Home-based systems tied to a landline phone tend to be the least expensive. Mobile systems with GPS tracking can be a little more pricey.
However, don’t assume that just because something is more expensive, that it’s automatically better. Shop around for the best prices and make sure to choose a company with a good reputation.
Also, make sure that you understand exactly what you’re being charged for, so you don’t get any surprises when the first monthly statement comes.
It’s important to note that most insurance companies won’t cover medical alert systems. Medicaid sometimes will, depending on the state.
Medical Alert System Features
Once you’ve taken stock of your needs, it’s time to narrow down medical alert systems based on their features.
By now, you probably have a pretty good idea of what you might want out of a system. But we’ve listed the most common features below, so you can make sure to get a system that has all the features you want.
Home Versus Mobile Systems
As we mentioned earlier, home-based systems are great for people who aren’t able to leave the house on their own. These systems are often less expensive than mobile systems.
But mobile systems are ideal for active people who regularly leave the house, even if this just means walking around a large yard. With mobile systems, there’s no fear of accidentally getting out of range of the system.
Landline Versus Cell Phone
The main concern over whether to get a landline-based system or one that connects to a cell phone is how strong the cell reception is in your area.
It’s also important to note that landlines work only for home-based systems. Mobile systems do need to be connected to a cell phone.
Monitored Versus Unmonitored Medical Alert Systems
Monitored medical alert systems will put you in touch with a live operator, who will assess your situation and call emergency services, or a friend or family member.
Unmonitored medical alert systems will call a list of your emergency contacts, and call emergency services if none of your emergency contacts answer the call.
Unmonitored medical alert systems tend to be less expensive but may not provide as much speed or security as some would prefer.
Fall Detection For Fall Risks
Not all medical alert systems automatically come with fall detection. Many are only activated if you push the button.
If you choose a device with fall detection, the device will activate itself if it’s moved in such a way that it thinks you’ve fallen. When it detects a fall, it will automatically call an operator who will speak to you through the device.
If you don’t respond to the operator, they will call 911 for you and send emergency personnel to you.
One potential downside to fall detection devices is that they can be set off unnecessarily, if you stumble and catch yourself, for example.
But many seniors prefer the tradeoff of unnecessary activations over the possibility of falling and not being able to get help. This is especially true since 1 in 5 falls results in a serious injury.
Track Your Vital Signs
If you need to track your vital signs regularly, it might be worth looking into a medical alert device that does it for you.
Track Your Medication and Get Reminders
Some devices will track your prescriptions and remind you when it’s time to take each medication.
Waterproof Devices Can Go Anywhere
Not all medical alert devices are waterproof, so if you’re planning to wear yours in the shower, make sure to get a waterproof one.
If you’re not sure whether you’ll wear yours in the shower or not, remember that the majority of falls occur in the shower or bath, with 80% of all falls occurring in the bathroom.
Pendant, Bracelet, or Clip-On Devices
Another thing to consider is the type of device you want. Most medical alert devices come in one of 3 forms:
- A pendant that is worn around the neck
- A bracelet that is worn on the wrist
- Clip-on that is clipped onto clothing
People who are concerned with the appearance of the device might opt for a bracelet or clip-on device.
People with arthritis or other hand trouble might do better with a pendant, since manipulating the clip-on might be too difficult.
Shatterproof Device to Protect Against Dropping
Regardless of the style of device you get, make sure it’s durable and won’t break if dropped or during a fall.
A quality medical alert device should be able to take a beating since it’s designed to be worn at all times.
Comparing Medical Alert Systems
How Much Do Systems Cost?
As mentioned above, medical alert systems come in a variety of price ranges, depending on what features you get.
Because insurance usually doesn’t pay for them, make sure that you understand all costs associated with the system and can afford the monthly payments.
Some companies charge extra for things like:
Ask ahead of time if they have any extra charges for things like this.
Also be sure to shop around for the best price, and research the company before making a purchase. Only sign a contract with a reputable company with a lot of good reviews.
Read the Contract
As important as understanding the cost associated with a system, make sure you understand the contract terms as well.
Choose a company that will allow you to stop or cancel your service at any time. This way, if you don’t need the service for a while, during a hospital stay, for example, you won’t be paying for services that you’re not using.
Avoid contracts that lock you into anything, in case you decide to go with a different system later.
Make Use of Free Trial Periods
Most companies offer obligation-free trial periods that give you a chance to test out the system and see if it’s a good fit for you.
Find out how long the trial period is (30 days is common) and what the process is if you decide that you don’t want to keep it after the trial.
Make sure to get these kinds of answers beforehand, so you don’t get stuck with a system that you don’t want.
What Is the Installation Process?
Make sure to find out ahead of time what the installation process for the system will be like.
Will the company send agents out to set up the system for you, or will you be responsible for hiring someone? Is the system something that you or a family member can set up on your own, or is a professional required to do it?
This also means asking what the installation fee is. It’s good to know going in what all the installation and setup fees will be in addition to your monthly bill.
What is the System’s Range?
Each medical alert system has a different range, and even if you stay in the home, systems with smaller ranges might not be able to reach the far corners of your house.
Find out what the range of the system is and make sure it will work for your needs. Take into account your yard, too, if you tend to spend time outside.
Getting the Most From Your Medical Alert System
It’s important that the system you choose does what you need it to do, which is keep you safe. These tips can help make sure you get the most out of your medical alert system.
Test it (A Lot) During the Trial Period
Don’t just rely on the company’s word that they have fast response times and helpful operators.
Quick response is vital in emergency situations, and medical alert agents need to respond quickly when the device is activated. Otherwise, they’ll slow down the emergency response process, which is dangerous.
Test out the system when you first get it, activating the device throughout the first few weeks. Activate it at different times of the day and night and write down how long it takes for someone to answer the call.
Reputable companies encourage testing of the system, so if the operators seem offended by the false alarm, you might consider changing systems.
Change Systems if Needed
Keep in mind that if you’re unhappy with the system you pick, you can always switch to a new one.
Make sure to get a feel for the medical alert system you choose and make sure it’s a good fit. If not, try a different one that might be better for your needs.
This is true even if you’re past your free trial period. Don’t feel obligated to stay with a company you’re not comfortable with.
Fill Out Your Profile
Most medical alert systems have customer profiles with medical information that will be helpful during an emergency situation, such as:
- Allergies to any medications
- Medications you’re currently taking
- Whether you have a pacemaker
- Other conditions which might affect CPR or first aid efforts
The more information paramedics have when arriving on the scene, the more quickly and efficiently they’ll be able to help you.
But the profile won’t help anyone if it’s not filled out completely and kept up to date. Make sure to fill it out completely when you first set the system up. Update the information as needed any time your condition or medications change.
Use It Properly
A medical alert device is only going to keep you safe as long as it’s on your body and working properly.
Failing to wear the device at all times, or not following the manufacturer’s instructions regarding battery life, etc., can render the device useless.
Make sure you understand and follow all instructions provided in order to get the most out of your system.
This is a good list of common mistakes people make when it comes to using their medical alert systems.
Why Not Just Use a Cell Phone?
Cell phones can be great for people who live alone and want the ability to keep a phone close by at all times.
But most people don’t have their cell phones on them at all times, even when they intend to. You can’t wear them in the shower, for example, or when you’re charging them.
It’s also easy to forget to grab them, especially for a middle of the night trip to the bathroom, for example.
Also, cell phones can be confusing to dial in an emergency situation, especially if you don’t use yours a lot.
Lastly, medical alert systems have your medical information on file. They can provide all your relevant information to paramedics so they can help you quickly and efficiently.
You might not be able to give them this information in an emergency. Especially if you’re losing consciousness, have hit your head and are confused, or if you have trouble communicating.
The more quickly emergency services are called and have the info they need, the better able they’ll be to help you.
What Else Can I Do?
A medical alert device can be a useful part of a larger home safety plan, but there are plenty of other things that seniors can do to ensure their safety.
Scheduling regular check-ins with friends, family, and caregivers can provide you with a sense of safety and can help keep them from worrying, too.
To set up a check-in plan:
- Choose a person or people to be your check-in team
- Decide who will check in with who
- Schedule check-in times and days
- Decide what happens if you miss a check-in
It’s best to have more than one person if possible, to take the responsibility off of one person. Making sure that the check-in team has a way to contact one another is also a good idea. If one of them doesn’t hear from you they can check with the other to see if they have.
Many older friend groups serve as check-in buddies for each other, which can also help combat loneliness.
Who Checks In?
Decide whether you will call your check-in person, or if they should call you.
Check-ins can also be by text or email, too.
It’s often helpful to alternate days, for example:
Check-in with person A on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and person B on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and weekends
The frequency of the check-ins is completely up to you. It can be as much as several times a day, or as little as once a week, depending on your health and comfort level
Make a Plan
It’s important to make sure your check-in team knows what to do if you miss a check-in.
- Should they call first responders right away?
- Should they call a neighbor or friend that lives close by?
- Does someone have a key to your home so they can check on you?
- If you miss a check-in, should someone check on you right away? Or do you prefer that they try reaching you again first?
Install Safety Equipment
Installing safety equipment in the home, especially in the bathroom, can reduce falls, and injuries caused by them, significantly.
Use Walking Tools
It can be frustrating getting used to using a cane or walker. If your doctor recommends doing so, it’s a good idea to follow the advice you’re given.
Walking tools can help you remain mobile for longer, and prevent nasty falls that will result in even more trouble moving around.
Medical alert systems are wonderful for seniors who want to continue living independently, but who also want the added security.
They can provide a sense of safety in your day-to-day life, but more importantly, they can actually save your life should the situation come up where you need emergency services and are unable to call for help.
Because medical alert devices will become a daily part of your life, it’s important that you take your time, do your research, and choose the one that will be best for you.