Healthy Aging

The new generation of wearable medical alert systems

Cheap, mid-priced, and Cadillac. Which one is for you?

Option one

This basic option usually includes a button you wear on a pendant or wristband, and a base unit (similar to a speaker-phone) that you plug into your house phone jack. If you get into trouble, you simply press your button, which signals the base unit to call the alert system operators. An operator then talks to you through the speaker in the base unit and sends paramedics if you need help. Most gadgets are waterproof and have built-in batteries that don't need recharging; most batteries last for years and will be replaced free of charge if they run out.

Typical price: $25–$30/month

Considerations: Just like a wireless house phone, these buttons can signal the base unit only within a limited range, such as 400 feet. But the buttons don't provide two-way communication with operators; only the base unit does that. So what happens if you're upstairs when you call for help, but the unit is downstairs? How will you hear the operator? Answer: you'll need another speaker, called a voice extender (that costs extra). And what if you're unable to press the button after a fall? Or what if you fall when you're away from home? You'll need upgrades to address those issues, such as fall detection or cellular technology, typically available in options two and three, below.

Option two

Option three

This premium option usually upgrades the button to a top-of-the-line device that looks like a mini cellphone, and actually uses cellular technology to contact emergency help. The improved communication allows you to use the alert system wherever you go, whether it's the grocery store or the great outdoors. Unlike the other options, this device has a built-in speaker, so you can talk to an operator through the button. It also features global positioning system technology (GPS), which gives alert system operators the ability to send help to your exact location.

Typical price: $40–$50/month

Considerations: This button is thicker and larger than the type worn only at home, so you probably won't be able to wear it comfortably on your wrist—you'll have to put it in your pocket or wear it around your neck. Also, it must be charged every few days, just like a cellphone. If you're not faithful about that, the button won't work.

Additional services

The fine print

It's not enough to find the latest and greatest alert system. You'll want to make sure that the company you choose has low activation fees, no long-term contracts, no cancellation fees, discounts for add-ons to your service, free replacement for equipment that's not working, and most important: operators who are available 24 hours a day at a UL-listed call center, which means the center meets requirements for backup systems in the event of failures, and is certified by safety testing company UL.

There are many alert system companies that meet all of those standards. Your choice may be swayed by recommendations from a friend, your doctor, or a local hospital. Just do your homework, and then give the system a try. You may soon wonder how you ever got along without it.

Could you use an alert system?

An alert system is worth strong consideration if you live alone. But anyone at risk of falling could benefit from using one.

The story of a Georgia couple's tragedy in January 2016 underscores the need: An 86-year-old man fell out of his motorized wheelchair outside their home, and shouted for his 74-year-old wife. She fell while trying to reach him, and both wound up on the ground overnight, with no way to call for help. The wife died in freezing temperatures; her husband was dressed warmly and survived.

Think about how an alert system could help in your own living situation. What if, for example, you fell while a family member was in another part of the house, unable to hear you? What if you fell while your family member was out doing errands? What if you fell and were simply unable to shout for help? If you have an alert system, you'll save precious time and get treatment sooner. "I think these devices are a good thing, especially for people who don't have someone calling every day to be sure they are okay. Unfortunately, sometimes the very people who need them the most are the people who won't wear them," says geriatrician Dr. Suzanne Salamon, a Harvard Medical School assistant professor.

A quick guide to medical alert system option levels

Make sure the company you choose has low activation fees, no long-term contracts, no cancellation fees, free equipment replacement, and operators available 24/7.

Option one

Option two

Option three

  • A two-piece system that comes with a home base unit and a small, lightweight device worn on your wrist or around your neck.

  • System has a limited range; the button itself doesn't have two-way communication.

  • Price: $25-$30/month

  • Like option one, a two-piece system that comes with a home base unit and a small wearable device.

  • Upgrades option one to include fall detection, which is handy if you are unable to push your button.

  • Price: $30-$40/month

  • A larger device that looks like a mini cell phone, worn around your neck or kept in your pocket.

  • Uses cellular technology to contact emergency help from any location, even if you're away from home.

  • Price: $40-$50/month


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