Having your loved one wear an alert system can prolong aging in place, but picking a device can be a headache with so many companies offering similar products
Older adults, particularly those who live alone, often welcome the idea of wearing a medical alert device to call for help from their home and yard. They may be at increased risk for falls due to poor eyesight or memory changes. Adult children and friends rest easier knowing that they’ll be called if help is needed any time of the day or night. It can be the difference between moving to a facility and being able to stay in the home you know like the back of your hand.
However, choosing a system can be a daunting task, especially when you see advertisements at every turn. Finding the right device becomes a lot easier if you understand how the systems work, what features you need, and what you should expect to pay. Finally, we offer options about where to find one that works in your area.
Two Basic Types of Systems
The simplest medical alert unit works with a landline telephone connection. The base unit plugs into your phone jack, then you plug your phone into the unit. An LED light turns green to indicate the system is on, and you can do a test run by pressing the portable help button on your wristband or neck. The button signals the unit to automatically dial an agent who will ask if you need help. (Some systems may dial emergency services directly so check first).
Such an in-home system is ideal for someone who rarely leaves home, or who goes out to public areas where other people could offer help if needed. But if you have an active lifestyle (one that includes walks out on trails, say, or jaunts around a quiet neighborhood), consider a mobile alert system.
Mobile models employ GPS technology to track your location while a cellular system connects you to a response center. While the mobile models are often a little larger than a basic model, the device you wear offers two-way communication with a call center. An optional fall-detection sensor can alert the center if you take a spill, although it typically comes with an additional monthly fee. Mobile systems can be paired with a landline, or a base with cellular circuitry. Both are very easy to install.
Whichever device you choose, the time from when you press the device to when you get a live response should be measured in seconds, not minutes. About 20 to 40 seconds is typical. The base unit works hands-free, so all the caller needs to do is request help. The best devices allow the user to notify the agent whom to call, because sometimes a neighbor or family member can help, while other situations require an emergency response. Most services get your medical information upfront, including health conditions, medications, allergies and who your doctors are, so it can be relayed to emergency services.
Choosing the Right Features
Handle the portable wrist band or pendant necklace to make sure it’s comfortable, since the wearer will ideally have it on 24/7.
Consider the fall alert option. One in three adults over age 65 falls every year, and we’ve all seen the TV commercial where the senior can’t get back up.
Medical monitoring provides medication reminders and remote monitoring for health vitals.
Activity monitoring automatically tracks movement at home.
Daily check-in service prompts a live call or electronic check-in request.
Fitness tracking can include a daily health prompt or give information.
What is the signal range? The connection may reach anywhere from 600 to 1500 feet. Test it out in your house and around the yard to make sure you have adequate coverage.
Is it waterproof? This ought to be a given, since many accidents occur in the bathroom.
How long does the battery hold a charge, and what is the battery life? Five days is about average for holding a charge. Is it easy to tell when the battery needs to be replaced?
Will it need technology updates that may be too complicated/confusing for the wearer to master?
Is a lockbox included? A lockbox with a code can be placed on the front door. In the event of an emergency, responders are given the access code for a house key to avoid breaking a door or window.
Is the call center in the U.S.? Some companies contract call center operators, and they can be overseas. How are dispatchers trained, and will your loved one be able to use their first language? Can they be contacted from the wearable device, or only from the base unit?
Can family members check in? Some systems allow friends or family to check in using a smartphone or other computer.
What About Cost?
Avoid a long contract. Cost should range between $25 and $35 a month for a land-based system, or $35 to $45 a month for a cellular unit. Avoid a company that requires a multi-year commitment. Check if there’s a discount for prepaying a few months ahead, but keep in mind that you may need to stop the service (for a hospitalization, for example).
Beware extra fees. Look for a plan with no extra cost for shipping, installation, activation, or service and repair.
Read the fine print. Make sure you have a guarantee, or at least a trial period when you can make sure you’re happy with the service. Can you cancel at will with a refund for unused months?
Ask for a discount. Check if the company offers a discount for veterans, AARP or other membership organization, or multiple users in the same home. In general, Medicare and private insurance won’t cover a medical alert device, but Medicaid may cover all or a portion of the expense. If the home is already covered by security system, you may get a discount by adding a personal device
Narrowing Down the Search
There are literally hundreds of companies nationally that offer medical alert services. The best choice for you may be a local player, a home security company, or a nationwide business that does nothing but personal emergency response systems. Where in the world do you start?
Your local agency on aging can supply a list of companies in your area. Check with the community senior center to get leads. Enter “medical alert system” or “urgent response device” and the name of your town into your computer. Be sure to get online ratings and read reviews. Watch out for advertisements that only look like reviews. Ask friends and family members if they can recommend a system. Journalists offer a good source of impartial ratings for national companies; check out this 2018 review in PC Magazine.
“Medical Alert Comparison,” Google.
“Revolar is a wearable panic button made for women, but usable by everyone,” Digital Trends.
“2018 Best Medical Alert Systems,” Best Company.
“What to look for in a medical alert system,” Consumer Reports.
“12 Medication Management Tips That May Save Your Life,” A Place For Mom.
“The Best Medical Alert Systems of 2018,” PC Magazine.
“How to Choose a Medical Alert System,” AARP.
Reprinted with permission from Society of Certified Senior Advisors