As our parents and loved ones age, it’s natural to feel a bit of anxiety about their safety. This is especially true if your loved one lives independently. The thought of them being by themselves and without help if an accident occurs is enough to worry anyone.

Medical alert systems are a great option to ease those worries and mitigate the risks of living independently. Many seniors have medical conditions that could cause emergencies, or have weakened balance that may lead to dangerous falls. In addition to giving you peace of mind that your loved one will be able to get the help that they need in the event of an emergency or accident, some medical alert companies offer additional features that can benefit your loved one as well, such as medication reminders or medication dispensers.

Deciding to purchase a medical alert system is just the first part of the process. There are numerous alert devices from different companies on the market, all with slightly different offerings and prices. Before you make a decision, it is important to understand how the systems work and what to look out for when selecting a device and provider. We’ll fill you in on the details of medical alert systems and how to choose the best one to meet your needs.

What is a Medical Alert System

Medical alert systems are personal medical devices that quickly and easily connect users with medical services or their loved ones. They make it much more likely that a senior will get the help they need in the event of an emergency, especially if they live alone. The systems are primarily used for medical emergencies, but can also protect seniors during other crises such as a fire or home invasion.

Where Medical Alert Systems Work

While traditional medical alert systems were only usable in the home, newer technology has allowed for the development of medical alert systems that can be taken wherever you go, as long as there is a cellular signal.  

In the Home

In-home systems come with a base station and a wearable component like a necklace, bracelet, or belt clip with an emergency button. The base station is placed somewhere in the home where it remains in place. The base station may be plugged into a phone jack or operate on a cellular signal for those without landline service.

The wearable component has a large button on it, and functions as the user’s “personal help button.” When the button is pressed, a signal is sent through the base station that triggers a call to an emergency monitoring center or contacts of the user’s choosing such as family members or a caretaker. The base station has a loudspeaker and microphone designed to reach throughout a user’s home. They will communicate with the monitoring center or their preferred contact via the base station. Some devices have a two-way speaker attached in the wearable component as well. In-home devices have a set range of how far away the user can be for the wearable component to reach the base station and have the base station pick up their voice, so they are better for those who spend most of their time in the home.

Anywhere with a Cellular Signal

Mobile systems are designed for more active seniors who spend a lot of time outside of the home or traveling. They are portable devices and do not have a set range; they will work anywhere there is a cellular connection. Seniors will still need to wear a device that has a personal help button, but they do not need to be within a certain distance of a base station in order for the device to work.

Fall Detection

Some systems offer fall detection, which uses motion-sensing technology to detect when a user has fallen down and may be unable to press their personal help button. If a fall is detected, it will automatically trigger a call to the emergency monitoring center or a user’s programmed contacts.

While this technology isn’t 100% reliable and users should always press their button in case of an emergency, fall detection can save lives and help older adults avoid further complications from serious falls.

Fall detection is typically an optional service that costs an extra $5-10 a month.

Monitoring

Feature
Monitored
Non-monitored

24-hour access to a monitoring center

Available without recurring subscription

Can automatically contact friends and family

Available with in-home and mobile systems

Fall detection may be available

Guaranteed around-the-clock assistance

Monitored Systems

Monitored systems connect users to an emergency monitoring center when they push the personal help button. The monitoring centers are staffed by dispatchers who are trained to assess callers’ situations and take the appropriate actions. When the user is capable, they can converse with the dispatcher via the base station or wearable speaker on their device. If the dispatcher is unable to communicate with the caller, they may automatically send emergency services to the user’s home or contact a caregiver or loved one, depending on the company and the customer’s emergency action plan.

Some companies allow users to set preferences for what action they would like the monitoring center to take when they press the help button. For example, users might request that dispatchers call 9-1-1, or that they call a friend or family member. Regardless, monitored medical alert systems offer the promise that someone will be there for your loved one around-the-clock.

Julie’s Story

A busy professional in New Hampshire, Julie constantly worried about her aging mother who lives alone in Florida after her husband died several years ago. Since convincing her mother to finally get a monitored home medical alert system after a recent fall, Julie is able to rest peacefully knowing that if her mom experiences a fall or another medical emergency, help is available – no matter the time of day or night.

Non-Monitored Systems

Non-monitored systems function in the same way as monitored systems, except that the device connects with a user’s designated contacts when the help button is pressed rather than a monitoring center. When someone purchases an unmonitored device, the company has the user pre-program a set number of contacts. The number of contacts that one is allowed varies between different systems, but it is typically up to five.

The contacts can be anyone from a child or neighbor to 9-1-1. It is completely up to the user who they would like to contact in the event of an emergency. Some systems connect callers to their contacts and allow two-way communication, while others play a prerecorded message for the contacts informing them that the user has pressed the button and may need assistance. The contact can then choose what action to take, such as going over to the caller’s house or alerting emergency services to go to the home.

Jeffrey and Megan’s Story

Jeffrey and Megan live about one mile away from Megan’s mother, Suzanne, who lives alone. Jeffrey, Megan, and their longtime family friend next door are all notified if Suzanne pushes her button. Recently, Jeffrey was notified that his mother-in-law was experiencing an emergency, he was able to get to her home 5 minutes later. He immediately called 911, and EMS was able to quickly respond and give Suzanne the help she needed.

Who Should Use Medical Alert Systems

If you ever worry about your aging parent or loved one living alone without anyone to help in case of an emergency, medical alert systems can give you peace of mind. They’re a great idea for anyone who wants the security of having someone there for their loved one at all times or for those who want to make it as easy as possible for their loved one to get in touch with friends, family, or a caregiver whenever they need help.

Some instances when a medical alert system can be helpful include:

  • After a fall or incident (such as a stroke)
  • If a senior lives alone
  • If no friends or family live close by and come to check on the senior regularly
  • If a senior is sometimes hard to get in contact with, causing the family distress
  • If a senior takes medication that causes side effects which may require medical attention
  • If a senior is prone to falls

If there is any chance that an emergency may happen and no one will be there to help, medical alert systems are often a wise choice.

How to Choose a Medical Alert System

If you are considering purchasing a medical alert system for a loved one, you have plenty of options to choose from. But with so many different devices on the market, it can be hard to determine which one is the best fit for your situation.

Before you make a decision, it is important to consider what is most important to you. Maybe you need a specific feature, or you would like to keep the price as low as possible. Think about your loved one’s needs and why you are getting the device, so you can choose a system that meets your priorities.

When choosing a system, always be sure to ask whether the company offers free trials. Most have a free trial period of 30 days, during which you can return the system and get a complete refund if you are unhappy with the services. This allows you to try a system to make sure the service and the device is a good fit for your needs.

What to Consider

What do you need it to do?

Think about why you’re purchasing a medical alert system and what you would like it to do for your loved one. Some functions to consider include:

  • Contact emergency services or loved ones. Personal help buttons connect users to an emergency monitoring center or preprogrammed contacts.
  • Locate your loved one in case of an emergency. This feature can be useful for active seniors or older adults with dementia who tend to wander and get lost.  Many mobile devices use GPS and other location services to provide the location of the device to EMTs responding to an emergency or on-demand to caregivers.
  • Detect movements and monitor activity. Some devices come with motion sensing technology and automatically call for help when a fall is detected. Others may call for a check-in if there is a lack of motion to ensure that everything is okay.
  • Medication assistance. If your loved one takes daily medications, look for features like medication reminders and automatic dispensers.
  • Check-in calls. Some companies offer daily wellness checks.
  • Caregiver connection. Certain companies have programs that allow caregivers to see the location of a loved one’s device or their activity and call history.
  • Other monitoring services. Consider if you would like extra services beyond medical emergency monitoring like assistance during a fire or home invasion.

Features to Consider

Be sure to check for the following features to see how different options compare and ensure that the device meets your loved one’s needs:

  • Water resistance. Can the wearable device be worn in the shower or get wet in the rain?
  • Battery life. Does the device need to be charged? How long can the user go between charges?
  • Backup battery. Is there a backup for the base unit in the event of a power outage?
  • Range. How far can the user be from the base unit for the device to work properly?
  • Fall detection. Does the device include motion detection to automatically alert the monitoring center when a fall occurs?
  • Landline or cellular connection. Does the base station need to be connected to a phone jack, or does it connect via cellular network?
  • In-home or mobile unit. Does the device work outside of the home?
  • Mobile app or online portal. Are there added features for smartphone users or for caregivers?

Medical Alert System Costs

Medical alert systems come at varying price points. Companies also have their own pricing systems, but most do not require you to sign up for any type of long-term contract. Rather, you sign up for service for a set amount of time, such as monthly, quarterly, or annually. Oftentimes, you pay a slightly lower amount per month when you sign up for quarterly or annual service, though you may be locked into service for that amount of time.

Most of the time, you are actually renting the equipment from the company and paying a monthly subscription fee for their monitoring services. You do not buy the equipment, which means you have to send the device back to the company when you are done using it and may have to pay a fee if you do not return the equipment to the company.

Each medical alert device company has their own pricing plans and fees. But no matter which company you are looking into, you should always look out for these things:

  • Extra Fees: Be sure to ask about extra fees like shipping, activation, and repairs. Some companies try to keep these fees hidden until you order the system, and they can be quite pricey.
  • Cancellation Policy: Ask if the company charges a cancellation fee or an exorbitant return shipping fee if you decide to end your service. Ideally, you should be able to cancel your service at any time. Many companies even offer prorated refunds for any months for which you prepaid for service.
  • Contracts: Make sure the company does not lock you into a long-term contract. Even if you sign up for an annual subscription and pay for the year up front, many companies allow you to cancel at any time and still may offer a partial or prorated refund.
  • Price Locks: Most companies guarantee that your monthly rate will not change over time, but it’s a good idea to check and make sure that your initial monthly cost is price locked for future billing cycles.
  • Discounts: It’s always worth checking if the company offers any discounts, especially for veterans.
  • Insurance: Medical alert devices are not usually covered by insurance. In some states, however, Medicaid will cover a portion or all of the cost of the system as a Personal Emergency Response Services. Check your specific state laws and policy to see if you are eligible for assistance.

Companies to Consider

QMedicQMedic devices have a unique motion and activity detection system that tracks users’ sleep patterns, activity levels, and compliance (whether or not they’re wearing the device). This information is all loaded onto the Caregiver Dashboard, which friends and family of the user can view at any time to get insight on their loved one’s health and confirm they’re actually wearing the device. There are no long-term contracts, and all customers have a 30 day free trial period to try the system at no risk. Pricing starts at $30/month.

For more, read QMedic’s full review.
RescueTouchRescueTouch customers actually purchase their devices rather than rent the equipment. This means that upfront costs are a bit higher (there is a one-time purchase fee of $99). But, they also have a unique two-way speaker feature in their pendant. Friends and family members of RescueTouch users have the option of initiating contact and calling their loved one via the device; each device has an assigned number as if it were a cell phone. This can come in handy when you cannot reach your loved one via the phone and want to initiate contact to see if they are okay. Monthly costs for devices with this feature start at $35.

For more, read the full review of RescueTouch.
MobileHelpMobileHelp does not charge extra for cellular systems, making it ideal for those without a landline. Its offerings range from classic in-home systems to a smartwatch-style mobile device, and it includes a free lockbox for every customer so EMS can get into the home easily during an emergency. All customers are eligible for a 30-day free trial, and there are no cancellation fees. Pricing starts at $29.95/month for a monthly plan.

For more, read MobileHelp’s full review.
Medical GuardianIn addition to their high-quality alert systems, Medical Guardian offers extra features like activity monitoring and smartwatch style devices to give you extra peace of mind about your loved one’s well being. Most of the devices have no activation or installation fees (the smartwatch style device has a one-time fee of $99). The prices start at $29.95/month, and there are never any cancellation fees.

For more, read the full Medical Guardian review.
Bay Alarm MedicalBay Alarm offers in-home landline and cellular systems, as well as mobile systems. Those with a landline can take advantage of the very low price of the in-home landline system, which costs just $19.95 per month. Other systems start at $29.95 per month. All customers are eligible for a refund if they decide to cancel their service within 30 days.

For more, read the full review of Bay Alarm Medical.