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How To Choose Medical Alert Systems

Updated on August 20, 2014

How To Find the Best Medical Alert System for Seniors

Many millions of us find ourselves taking care of elderly parents or other loved ones who are trying to continue to live independently in their own home. We may worry because we know that their balance is poor or their strength reduced. They may have other medical issues that put them at risk of having a medical emergency when no one is around to help.

Really, for any aging parent who lives alone or far from family, the concern of what would happen if they had a medical need often comes up.

I know I'm in that situation now. My mother, who is widowed, lives an hour away and doesn't wish to move. She's frail, has poor balance, and occasionally has trouble with getting in and out of her bathtub. We've made some adaptations to make such things easier, but it all points out the fact that an accident could easily happen. In 2009, we went shopping for medical alert systems so that we both could have the peace of mind of knowing she could summon help any time she needed it. Whether it was a medical emergency or something else, she wouldn't have to wait a day or two for someone to check in on her.

On this page, I will share some of the information I gathered from this experience. I will be starting with what types of things we considered in making our selection, let you know a bit about the systems we investigated, and let you know how it goes. We hope you'll find some useful information on this page and will share any that you have as well.

Why We Considered Medical Alert Systems

Medical alert systems may be considered for a number of reasons:

Isolation

My mother is widowed and lives by herself. Her neighbors are friendly, but elderly as well. They have contact about once a week. My mother lives an hour away from me and I can't really physically check on her more than every week or two if I continue to work. In addition, even a daily phone call leaves her at least 24 hours in which she could potentially lay on the floor without anyone knowing. And then of course, there are the days that I may be away.

This is a very common scenario with older people as friends and relatives die or move away and they are left on their own.

Reduced Physical Condition

As my mother has aged her osteoporosis, resulting back pain, and low body weight have reduced her strength and endurance significantly. Her balance is also poor which is common in the elderly and when people aren't very active in general. This all increases the risk of a fall considerably. A significant fall is the primary reason for the loss of independence in the elderly. Even for those who are a bit younger, a recent surgery or a significant reduction in mobility can be a good reason to consider a medical alert system at least for a period of time.

A Desire to Live Independently

Like most of us, my mother wants to continue to live in her own home. The security of knowing she can get help when needed without having to move closer to me or into a supervised environment may allow her to do that.

How Most Medical Alert Systems Work

Most medical alert systems on the market offer a "personal help button", either a pendant, a wrist band, or a wall mounted button for the person to press when there is an emergency. Medical emergencies are what we most often think of, but companies report that many of their calls aren't medical or are calls that don't require a paramedic or EMS response.

The "personal help button" then communicates with a base station. The base station is about the size of a small two way speaker phone. Generally they plug into a wall outlet and phone jack. The vast majority of the medical alert systems on the market are monitored, so when the help button is activated, an attendant will answer over a speaker on the base station and inquire about what help is needed. The person can then indicate what help they need. If they are unable to respond, or can't be heard, the assistant will send help; generally in the form of a paramedic.

The only other type of medical alert systems we found were unmonitored. In these cases, the user purchases the equipment, a base station/one-way speaker phone and pendant help button, but the system is not monitored. If an emergency arises the user presses the help button and the equipment automatically makes calls to numbers which have been preprogrammed into it. Any number can be programmed in; numbers of relatives, neighbors, or friends anywhere in the country or to 911.

How to Choose Medical Alert Systems

In the initial phase of shopping for a medical alert system, my mother and I put together a list of questions for me to research with each company/product that we would consider. I gathered this first bit of information by e-mail so that I didn't have to rely on my memory or cryptic notes and had answers in writing. This was how we started:

How far from the base station will the help button operate? Will the help button work from outdoors?We wanted to know if the button would work from anywhere inside of her home, through walls and doors, and whether or not it would offer protection even if she had fallen when going outdoors to check her mail box. Is there a process for testing the equipment once we order? We also wondered if it doesn't either respond to the button or pick up her voice satisfactorily throughout the home, can it be returned with no charge?All of the systems we examined allow you to test them once you receive them, and many indicate you should test them each month. Is the help button waterproof?We wanted to be sure she could wear the help button 24/7 no matter what activity was occurring. We were particularly concerned about her ability to get out of the tub or experiencing a fall when getting in or out of the shower, so it was important to know she could wear the button in the shower.All of the ones we evaluated were waterproof How involved is installation?Neither my mother nor I are engineers and we have little patience with equipment that isn't user friendly. We wanted "plug and play" simplicity and we wanted to know if there would be help if we ran into difficulty with set up.All of the ones we evaluated appeared to require only that you plug them into a wall oulet and phone jack. What's the power supply and is it reliable?We wanted to know if we needed special outlets, a phone jack, or something else. We also wanted to know that there would be sufficient back up for power outages.All of the systems we looked at only required a regular wall outlet and had a battery back-up. Where is the monitoring staff?This may sound silly but we wanted to know where the people are who answer the phones. It wasn't really critical that they be "local" but merely that we were confident there would be no lapse in communication due to language or dialect problems. Emergency situations and an elderly person who may be unaccustomed to various dialects don't go well together. For those who live in a country where their native language isn't spoken, finding a company which has a translation service would clearly be important as well.All of the systems we looked at had response center staff located somewhere in the US. What training does the monitoring staff have?Some companies that provide medical alert systems are more geared toward security and thus their staff have little or no medical emergency related training. Others require hundreds of hours of such instruction. As an aside, I was also hoping to find a company that directly employed the monitoring staff or attendants versus contracting them out; I felt that the direct relationship and their ability to evaluate these staff would help assure better quality. Will the base station pick up my mother's voice?One of my mother's biggest concerns is that the base station located in one room of her home wouldn't pick up her voice when in another room. Although help would be sent if they couldn't hear her, she didn't like the idea that there would be a visit from the paramedics when all she needed was a call to her neighbor to come and help her get up from the floor or something similar. Thus we wanted to know more about the voice range of the base station and whether or not she could get additional equipment to pick up her voice in other rooms as well. Does the service allow personalized instructions?Partially due to my mother's desire to avoid using emergency services unless absolutely necessary, she wanted to know if she could dictate a different call sequence, where her daughter (or someone else) was called first and then, if they determined it was necessary, EMS would be called. We wanted to know in general how much detail the service could handle, such as who to call, in what sequence, and if that informtion could be up-dated routinely to reflect time away for vacations and so forth. What is the cost and the commitment?We obviously wanted to know the cost of the service, the equipment, any miscellaneous fees, and so forth. We also wanted to know about any contracts and guarantees as well as equipment maintenance and replacement.

Some of the Medical Alert Systems We Assessed.

There seemed to be a huge number of medical alert systems available on the market. I chose six to get us started and keep it manageable.

ADT Companion Services

We chose to evaluate ADT based on their reputation as a good home security company.

What We Found: From what we could learn, ADT had the highest cost of the systems we screened. They had a $99 activation fee and a higher monthly cost. From the discussions, it seemed that the people answering the phones had training, but it was unclear exactly what the training included, or how much was provided. My mother was displeased with the fact they would call 911 immediately if they did not hear her after activating the help button, rather than calling people she designated first.

This was just her personal preference. The battery back up which would operate the system in a power outage, was also quite a bit shorter than other systems; 18-20 hours. The operating distance seemed adequate, but wasn't as far as some other systems indicated.

LifeStation

This is a medical alert system we wanted to learn more about based on the fact their attendants receive 240 hours or more of classroom training.

What We Found: Nothing. Literally. I contacted them via e-mail three times, but never received any response at all. Obviously, the same people that answer e-mail are not the same ones who answer phones in an emergency, but it certainly doesn't inspire confidence. We did not consider this system as a result.

American Medical Alarms

I chose to evaluate this one further because it indicated it had a voice range of 8,000 square feet and would easily work outdoors.

What We Found: Call center personnel were state certified responders and the monthly cost was near the lower end of the systems we evaluated. In 2009-10, $24.95/month. My mother liked it that they seemed more flexible about following her personalized instructions versus calling 911 automatically if they had difficulty hearing her when she needed help. This one also had a good operating range but battery back-up was for only 18 hours.

Rescue Alert

A first look at this one seemed to indicate they offered good medical/emergency related training for the attendants and offered the ability to use very detailed personal intructions about how to respond.

What We Found: This is the system we chose to try out. The figures reported indicate an operating range of nearly twice that of the systems listed above. The battery back up was 90 hours, which was the longest of all of the systems. Response center staff are EMD certified and the monthly cost could be as low as $21.95/month, if you sign up for a year. We could get a free 30 day trial to test it out, and even if we signed up for the year, we could return it at any time and have any unused time refunded. For no additional cost, they would provide a lockbox to keep a key on the outside of my mother's home to allow emergency responders in if needed. They also seemed very flexible about following personalized instructions.

Update. We've had the system in place for about three and half years now. No problems to report. The staff reach my mother over the intercom once a month just to check and make sure everything is working. She has no trouble hearing it or with them hearing her. Thus far she's not had to use it in an emergency.

Alert 1

I chose to evaluate this one because they offered voice extenders that allow the user to place speakers/mic in other rooms which is something my mother felt might be necessary.

What We Found: This system seemed to have a similar operating range as the one we chose, but the battery back up was for only 24 hours.The response center staff seemed to indeed receive a great deal of ongoing training, although most of it was administrative in nature. They also seemed flexible as far as following personalized instructions and the cost was in the middle of the range; $27.95-$29.99/month. (In 2011, this price dropped to $24.95 - $29.95.) They were ultimately, the only system that would provide a second base station, actually a "voice extender", to help pick up voice in other rooms. (cost $99) This system was our second choice.

Philips Lifeline

I identified this merely because it offered a significant difference. It was not a monitored system. It appeared to offer users the ability to use a help button with a base station that would coordinate calls to a programmed list of numbers or respondents that you identify. For instance you may want it to call a family member, neighbor, or EMS. They claim that the elderly are less reluctant to use such a system and that response time is actually better because there is no monitoring service to act as the in-between. In addition, there is no monthly fee, only the purchase price of the equipment.

What We Found: This system seemed to have a smaller operating range than the other systems and it's the only one that seemed to indicate it definitely would not operate if my mother had stepped outdoors. It is unmonitored, and simply calls people you have programmed into it when you activate the button. We didn't like the fact that it was only a one way speaker phone. Thus when it contacted someone they couldn't converse with my mother. They could only call her back and either tell her they were on their way over or they were calling 911. The same would be true if she programmed it to call a 911 operator; they couldn't actually communicate, they could only send an EMT to her home. This was certainly an affordable option, but ultimately we wanted two way communication capabilities and a system that had a larger operating distance.

Update: In 2012 I received information that Philips now offers the Lifeline Medical Alert Service which allows the user to press a button to summon help just as most systems do. However it also offers "an added layer of protection by automatically placing a call for help if a fall is detected". This would seem to be useful in situations in which an individual needs help but is unconscious or unable to press the button. Certainly something that could be useful.

Medical Alert Systems with No Monthly Fee

My mother and I did not investigate too many of the systems that operated with no monthly fee. We wanted a system that allowed her to communicate with someone and most medical alert systems that don't charge the monthly fee are "unmonitored". However, for those who merely want quick and easy access to emergency services, an unmonitored system can be a cost saver.

Freedom Alert may be an unmonitored system worth investigating. It provides a base station and an emergency button that can be worn as a pendant, on a belt clip, or around the wrist. It is programmed to either dial 911 or a sequence of numbers that include family, friends, neighbors, or emergency services. The user talks directly through the same device worn as an emergency button which might alleviate worries that a central base station might not pick up the sound of the users voice. It doesn't allow for extended communications but would seem ideal for emergencies and has a 600 ft. range.

Unlike many of the monitored medical alert systems, you will need to pay for the equipment, but there is no monthly fee.

It is important for users of such unmonitored systems to realize that the call sequence should probably remain short. If there is a real medical emergency, it would be unwise to have the system set up to call up to 3 people (who might not be available to take the call) before it calls 911. This would present a significant delay in getting emergency medical services when it's critical.

Photo Credits

Introduction: eflon.

Why We're Considering a Medical Alert System: gwire.

How Most Medical Alert Systems Work: Starry Eyed Ali

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    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      @anonymous: as someone who works with the independent elderly frequently, I highly recommend a rescue alert that can be taken into the shower/bath instead of just a cell phone. So many accidents happen there, and even just hours after a fall, the effects can permanently disable a person. Plus, if a fall occurs around the house, they may not have their cell with them. It's really a life-saver.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      @anonymous: Did you find one that has long range. My mom is always out in her yard and I'm looking for the longest distance one. Would appreciate any help that you would send my way.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      thank you. I am just starting to understand the different options for an emergency set up for my mom.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Bay Alarm Medical is unwilling to bend on any of their policies regardless of the circumstances. And to top it off they were quite unfriendly. I would HIGHLY recommend you purchase a different system.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      My mother is 80 years old. She has had several falls at home but she keeps her cell phone with her at all times. She is looking into a medic alert system but I told her why pay pay another fee just to have a necklace button to push, plus she can leave the house and still feel safe?

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Thank you for the useful informationon med alerts. My sister and I are shopping for a long range system. Thanks again for the info.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Thank you for the very useful and informative article. I'm currently shopping around for a medical alert system for my 82 year old mother and really appreciate you sharing your valuable experience.

    • OUTFOXprevention1 profile image

      OUTFOXprevention1 4 years ago

      Such an important subject! Thanks for the lens.

    • RuthCoffee profile image
      Author

      RuthCoffee 4 years ago

      @anonymous: I'm basing my review on my personal experience period. I'm not saying one system is good or not, just stating what happened to me.

    • RuthCoffee profile image
      Author

      RuthCoffee 4 years ago

      @anonymous: I have read about in recent months the Philips Lifeline Medical Alert System...supposedly it can detect a fall. I have no first hand experience with it, but it certainly could meet a need.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Is there a system on the market that will alert if the elderly person is unable to activate the emergency alert? Maybe based on vitals or a time span without checking in? My father in law is looking for such a device. Any help would be appreciated.

    • profile image

      Joseph614 5 years ago

      Excellent post. 100% effective. Keep it up.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      This is a very detailed and informative lens! Comparison and research are the best tools when choosing a medical alert system, and this is a great resource for those looking into purchasing one. There are a lot of companies out there and a lot of products available. Here's a great resource for comparing leading brands side by side: Medical Alert Comparison Chart

    • profile image

      ricardolamb 5 years ago

      terrific information, nicely organized -- thank you for this lens!

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Thank you - have been hunting information for myself. You raised a few questions I forgot to ask.

      I like ones that have GPS because I am not always at home - frequently not. Still work, but have balance problems.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      i posted earlier, as i and my siblings are searching for an alert system for my mother. just need to repeat-- every time i have called LifeStation for info, they have answered the phone -- once on Sunday and once on Saturday -- so the reviews on this website seem rather personal and unobjective. they say say they didn't receive a response to an email, but i got the info that was sent to me from Lifestation. i would never base a review on an email interaction -- (i have even had emails from legitimate hotels we stayed at weeded out by spam programs). we still haven't decide which one we're going to go with...

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Thanks for your reviews and info. Very helpful and appreciated.

    • KReneeC profile image

      KReneeC 5 years ago

      Great job on the lens. Very helpful and informative

    • facilitymainten profile image

      facilitymainten 5 years ago

      It's not often you see a good post about medical alarms. Thanks for doing us all a favor.

    • profile image

      gerrardbraiden 5 years ago

      Thanks for sharing amazing & useful post to everybody. Keep Posting!!!

      CNA Classes Online

    • profile image

      gerrardbraiden 5 years ago

      Thanks for sharing amazing & useful post to everybody. Keep Posting!!!

      CNA Classes Online

    • profile image

      transcriptioncity 5 years ago

      Really useful lens, will be a real help to the elderly and disabled.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Excellent article.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Thanks for this article! Very helpful...

    • sousababy profile image

      sousababy 6 years ago

      Dear mulberry, I am featuring this excellent resource on my newest lens, 'Living Articles on Squidoo.' I feel this will help many, many folks. Thank you for such a great resource. Sincerely, Rose

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      We need information re Angel Alert offered by Guideposts Magazine...it has the Good housekeeping seal.....thanks!

    • NorDac LM profile image

      NorDac LM 6 years ago

      Good lens, very helpful for older ones and those with special needs

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      @hwbrady: VEry helpfull. i must share it with my friends. i have link it at http://www.pharmatwist.com

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Those devices would definitely guaranty a patient's safety. Great lens you have here.

      Rob Pauls

      CityMD.net

      "Pediatric Urgent Care NYC"

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      thanks for sharing all the awesome information about medical alert systems

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Nice info.thanks dude...

    • PNWtravels profile image

      Vicki Green 6 years ago from Wandering the Pacific Northwest USA

      Great information to help others choose a medical alert system. Thanks for sharing your experience and research. Blessed by the Healthy Living Senior Citizens neighborhood Squid Angel.

    • MargoPArrowsmith profile image

      MargoPArrowsmith 6 years ago

      This is great! I have lensrolled to Hiring Home Health Aida AND Changing the Guard Blog.

      Also an Angel Blessing for this lens!

    • profile image

      home-security 6 years ago

      Very nice theme and Lens. I would like to express my appreciation. I have been working on a similar business and I would like to invite you to visit also my web. New Home Security products that may interest you have been added

    • profile image

      Goodalarmbadalarm 6 years ago

      A very clear good and in depth review. I like the way you have added your findings. Very good.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      we ordered a medical alert system for my mother-in-law, who is 90 and is extremely hard of hearing. She has a hearing aid which helps usually (not the greatest hearing aid but that's another story). Finally were able to convince her to get a system, ordered it from Life Station which was a great co., she could not hear the speaker when she was in another room. Is there a system that has a speaker contained in the necklace? That would be the best for her and other hard of hearing individuals.

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      As a representative of LifeStation, I am sorry that you did not receive a reply to your email. We have operators available 24/7 to answer questions about medical alert system. Simply call 800-884.8888. In addition, you can receive a printed brochure by filling out the form on our website.

      We are the only medical alert provider that operates their own UL Listed monitoring center -- no outsourcing and the strictest level of validation of our monitoring center.

      http://www.lifestation.com

    • RuthCoffee profile image
      Author

      RuthCoffee 7 years ago

      @anonymous: I don't have experience in using a cell phone in a pouch around the neck versus these systems. There would be advantages and disadvantages I think. The cell phone would be more portable. If they walked down the street or whatever it would work whereas these alarms would not. On the other hand the cell phone isn't generally waterproof and wouldn't work in the bathtub or shower. I would suggest that you would want to select one of the emergency phones or a "senior friendly" phone that has one, large button to push in case of emergency. I have a page about those too. https://hubpages.com/technology/cell-phones-for-se

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      Very helpful reviews, thanks for doing this. I'm now looking for a system for my dad, who recently took a bad fall while walking in his neighborhood.

      He's currently a client of a visiting nurse service, affiliated with the hospital he was cared for in Seattle,. This home health agency included a brochure about an alarm service they offer, called LifeNet. However, I've been trying to get specifics on it for 10 days now, with no success, other that exchanging voice mail msgs. Today I finally was able to speak with an agency supervisor , and she knew nothing about any of the basics, not even price.

      Is anyone familiar with Life Net, and another company called Life Line, that was previously used by Visiting Nurse Services of the NW ( now part of Swedish Medical Center)? If so, pls. share your comments.

      Also, has anyone had experience with having their elder use a cell phone worn in a neck pouch, instead of an alarm service? Feedback?

      Thank you.

    • RuthCoffee profile image
      Author

      RuthCoffee 7 years ago

      @anonymous: As an addendum to my response. It was the Alert 1 that allowed you to buy an "extender" for other rooms that would put the person closer to the speaker at any given time by providing more speakers. In the end we didn't need this as the system was amazingly loud and sensitive to picking up voice.

    • RuthCoffee profile image
      Author

      RuthCoffee 7 years ago

      @anonymous: I actually looked for just such a system a year ago when I wanted to get one for my mom. I found none. She is not hard of hearing but we were concerned that they might not hear her as her voice is very soft. I can tell you the system we chose however, is very, VERY amplified. You can hear it anywhere in the house and even outside. Amazingly enough they also heard my mother speaking to them from outside as well. Some have additional components you can buy to put a speaker in another room. I forget which ones, but I think the Rescue Alert that we purchased was one of them. If you wanted to, you could get the system, try it out, and if it doesn't function adequately for the person you will be using it with, return it. The company we used told us this was ok to do. I would talk to one of their reps first, but that's how it worked for us. Of course, the companies emphasize the even if no one responds, they will send help.

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      Really liked your concise info. I've been trying to select an appropriate alarm for someone very hard of hearing but very independent. Any advise on the few companies which have a communicator in the pendant?

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      Thank you for such great information, it was very helpful.

    • RolandTumble profile image

      RolandTumble 8 years ago

      Great advice. Very comprehensive.

    • Andy-Po profile image

      Andy 8 years ago from London, England

      Very useful advice

    • profile image

      anonymous 8 years ago

      A Medical Alert is an amazing product when when they are used. many people tend not to wear the jewelry and it's really a neccisity to wear most are now small a inconspicous

    • profile image

      anonymous 8 years ago

      I got my medical alarm and loved it here are some articles that i read to choose which alaram:

      http://medicalalarm.squarespace.com/

    • profile image

      anonymous 8 years ago

      What a very helpful resource. I know what a worry our elderly parents are to us and this lens will be helpful to many people. Blessings to you!

    • profile image

      anonymous 8 years ago

      [in reply to hwbrady] We also have a no fee medical alert from ATS for my mother-in-law programmed just for 911. This replaced another medical alert system we paid on monthly. Not only has our monthly savings has been significant, we feel much more comfortable knowing we don't have a company in between contributing to delayed response time.

    • profile image

      hwbrady 8 years ago

      Most medical alert systems/companies require you to pay monthly fees when all they do is turn around and call 911 for you. For my grandmother, we were able to save on critical response time and big bucks with a no fee medical alert system from ATS. The system works with a variety of panic buttons and personal pendants, calls 911 directly and announces the medical emergency. It is also programmable to dial a list of family members primarily and 911 secondarily in the event family members are not available to answer. This is great for elderly folks who have a hard time distinguishing a need for assistance from a real medical emergency.

    • GramaBarb profile image

      GramaBarb 8 years ago from Vancouver

      I have the Philips Life Line here in Canada and it has actually saved my life. I was much too sick too fast to use the phone. It automatically phones 911 when I press the button that I wear 24/7

    • ElizabethJeanAl profile image

      ElizabethJeanAl 8 years ago

      Welcome to The Totally Awesome Lenses Group.

      Lizzy