Increasingly, today’s seniors are choosing to continue living in their own homes or communities and enjoying more active lifestyles than ever before. Medical alert systems offer immediate access to assistance in the event of falls or other medical emergencies, and they’re quickly gaining popularity with independent seniors and their loved ones, thanks to the enhanced safety and peace of mind they provide.

The wide array of medical alert systems on the market can make choosing one a confusing and overwhelming task. To compare the available systems accurately and make an informed choice as to which one is best for you, it’s important to know how medical alert systems work.

Although each provider offers its own range of devices, features, options and service plans, medical alert systems all work towards the same goal — to get help where it’s needed fast. Seniors press a button to contact their medical alert provider’s call center, where trained operators are available 24/7 to respond and send immediate assistance. While this simple explanation tells you what medical alert systems do, it doesn’t tell you much about the various components that interact seamlessly to connect seniors with support.

To help make your choice of systems easier, we’ve put together this guide that explains the different types, components and features of medical alert systems and how they function, so you can narrow down the options that best suit you or your loved one’s needs.

Types of Medical Alert Systems

The technology behind medical alert systems has advanced by leaps and bounds since the first “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” ad for these life-saving devices aired on TV in 1989. While the basic concept of how medical alert systems work is still the same, there are now three types of systems available to suit different situations:

Landline Systems

In-home systems that work through regular telephone lines were the first type of medical alert systems available. They remain a popular choice for seniors who live alone and want to retain their independence and have a landline phone. The systems typically consist of a base station that’s placed in a central location in the home that connects with wearable pendants and/or mounted call-button devices. Working together, these components alert the medical alert company’s call center when the subscriber presses a button indicating they need help.

Mobile Systems

Mobile systems that work on cellular networks are becoming more popular largely due to the greater flexibility they offer medical alert plan subscribers. These systems can be comprised of a single mobile device, a wearable call button or both, and they may also offer the option of a cellular base unit to place in a central location in the subscriber’s home.

Because they’re not tied to a fixed phone line, all the components are fully portable. They allow a senior to press a button and reach their medical alert provider’s monitoring center from almost anywhere inside and outside their home as well as when they’re on the go and within range of a cellular signal.

In-Vehicle Systems

In-vehicle systems are the latest innovation in medical alert technology and are currently available through one provider. These systems consist of a portable device that plugs into a vehicle’s 12-volt adapter to access power. They also have a backup battery so they’ll work even if a 12-volt source isn’t available.

As with mobile systems, in-vehicle medical alert devices work on cellular networks. They feature automatic crash-detection sensors and use GPS geolocating to pinpoint the user’s location if an emergency or accident occurs. These devices also have a built-in speaker, microphone and an instant-connect button that, when pressed, immediately establishes a cellular connection with the provider’s call center.

Medical Alert System Components

As with the systems themselves, the components of medical alert systems are constantly evolving and improving. Here’s a look at the components that make up today’s systems and how they work:

Base Units

The base unit, also called a console, is a key component of an in-home medical alert system. It contains a digital communicator that receives a signal when a senior presses a button indicating they need help. The console then initiates a call to the provider’s monitoring center where trained staff are available 24/7. Many consoles feature a sensitive microphone and speaker that allow two-way voice communication between the user and monitoring center staff.

Depending on the system chosen, the console may either plug into an electrical outlet and a landline phone jack or may be battery operated and work on a cellular network signal. Plug-in units typically have a long-lasting backup battery in case of power outages. Most mobile units have rechargeable batteries and come with plug-in charging stations.

Remote Transmitters With Call Buttons

Medical alert systems also feature remote transmitters equipped with large, easy-to-activate emergency call buttons. These battery-operated devices offer seniors the security of knowing help is available with just the push of a button from virtually anywhere in their home or wherever there’s a cellular signal.

With a landline system, pressing the button on the transmitter sends a digital wireless signal to the base unit from up to 1,300 feet away, depending on the brand and model. In a mobile system, the transmitter itself often acts as a portable base unit that contacts the monitoring center when its button is pressed. Transmitters are typically water resistant, and the most common types include:

  • Wall-mounted units for placement in hazardous areas, such as bathrooms
  • Wristband devices that resemble a bracelet or watch
  • Portable devices that can be stowed in a purse or attached to a belt clip
  • Pendant- or necklace-style devices worn around the neck

Some medical alert companies offer transmitters that can be easily converted, so a subscriber can choose how and where the device is worn.

Monitoring or Call Centers

Medical alert providers and call centers are critical components that allow subscribers to access help quickly in an emergency. Reputable medical alert companies have multiple call centers and redundant systems in place so subscribers are assured of reaching assistance 24/7, 365 days a year. These centers are typically CSAA- and UL-certified, offering translation services for non-English speakers, and they’re staffed by fully trained operators who can quickly obtain the caller’s on-file medical information, accurately assess their needs and promptly provide necessary assistance.

System Features and Options

In addition to the standard medical alert system components, many companies offer additional features and options you may want to consider. Here are the latest ones available and how they work:

Fall Detection Sensors

Incorporated into wearable devices, fall-detection sensors use accelerometers, gyroscopes and advanced algorithms to detect when a senior slips or falls and automatically contacts their provider’s monitoring center.

GPS Locating

Many companies offer wearable and mobile devices with optional GPS tracking capabilities that use satellite signals to accurately track a subscriber’s location.

Caregiver Tools

Caregiver tools allow for remote monitoring of a loved one’s account activity through a mobile phone or online portal. Sensors in the system’s devices collect and relay data on fall-detection alerts, button presses and activity and sleep periods. The feature may also provide GPS tracking, send low-battery notifications and alert a caregiver if the wearer wanders beyond a preset area or takes their device off.

Environmental Monitoring

Some medical alert system devices are equipped with sensors that detect life-threatening conditions in a subscriber’s home, such as carbon monoxide leaks and fires. If a hazard is detected, an automatic alert is sent to the monitoring center so help can be dispatched.

Choosing a Medical Alert System That Works for You or Your Loved One

Now that you’ve learned some of the basics concerning how medical alert systems work, you’ll find it easier to determine what type of system is ideal for you or your loved one and investigate all the available options. Be sure to compare components and optional devices as well as monthly equipment costs and monitoring fees.

Other important considerations are the range of in-home equipment, whether a strong cellular signal is available in your area, each company’s average response time and the length of any required contract. By thoroughly exploring your options before making a choice, you’re sure to find a medical alert system that works for you or your loved one.