Medical alert systems are growing in popularity as the coronavirus pandemic makes it harder to have physical contact with older loved ones. They promise reassurance with a touch of a button that connects a user to a dispatcher who can send emergency help or contact family and friends.
“Medical alert devices have been 'care extenders' for many fairly independent elders living alone," explains Anne C. Sansevero, a registered nurse, founder of HealthSense, and member of the Aging Life Care Association. "In this era of the coronavirus pandemic, they can be a tool deployed to bridge the tech/touch divide."
When used properly, these products (generally pendants or wristbands) "can offer a clear communication method and a triage system in the event of a fall or the onset of a sudden worrisome symptom such a chest pain or shortness of breath," Sansevero says.
That doesn't mean medical alert systems are right for every older adult. They're also not a magic fix.
Limitations with these devices include "false positives" in which a senior sets off an alarm without meaning to (a special concern for those with cognitive decline), Sansevero says. Or a senior, "could forget to wear the device and it can be gathering dust on the dresser when an unfortunate event occurs in another area of the home," she adds.
But if used as intended, they can offer some peace of mind to the caregiver and care recipient. Below we've rounded up popular options, how much they cost, and what you need to know about them.
Keep in mind that all devices require monthly fees, and some carry activation or other one-time fees or even contracts. Monthly plans vary. Cellular connections tend to be more expensive than landline-based connections. Other features, like mobile use (for outside of your home) and fall detection, generally come with extra costs. Pro tip: If you call customer service, as you would with a cable company, you may be able to negotiate down payments.
Medical Guardian Classic Guardian (no product charge)
Standard monthly rate: $29.95
The lowest-cost option from Medical Guardian’s line of medical alert gizmos includes a free neck pendant or wristband with a button to get in touch with its 24/7 monitoring staff through a base station. The wearable can be used in or around your home, and for $10 more per month you get fall detection. You could also upgrade to the pricier smartwatch or a GPS-enabled Active Guardian for on-the-go needs. Right now Medical Guardian is promoting free shipping, one free month of service, free activation, and a free lockbox with purchase.
Bay Alarm Medical In the Home (no product charge)
Standard monthly rate: $19.95
The simplest of the Bay Alarm Medical devices is a wearable (on a lanyard or your wrist) with a button that puts you in conversation with on its 24/7 emergency operators who can fetch help via 911 or contact friends, family, or neighbors. There’s no initial cost for the product and you get a risk-free 30-day trial, plus Bay Alarm Medical is currently offering free shipping. So it’s a comfortably low bar to entry. Other more tricked-out iterations, like an On the Go tracker built on AT&T’s 4G LTE network, cost more.
MobileHelp Classic (no product charge)
Standard monthly rate: $19.95
MobileHelp is geared toward those who don’t have or don’t want landline service. The cellular in-home medical alert system bundles everything in its fairly low rate for the most basic setup: You don’t have to worry about equipment cost, an activation fee, or even shipping. The base station and included pendant put you in communication with the 24/7 monitoring team. There’s also a 30-day risk-free trial period.
LifeFone At-Home Landline (no product charge)
Standard monthly rate: $24.95
LifeFone, like the other at-home kits, works through its base station plus a pendant or wristband that together connect you to 24/7 operators. You can pay a bit more for cellular instead of landline service, or if you want to shell out for the premium setup, get the At-Home & On-the-Go GPS, Voice-In-Necklace (starting at $39.95 a month), an all-in-one solution that heads out the door with your older loved one. You can add fall detection to a product for an extra $5 a month, and LifeFone is currently promoting a free month, free shipping, a free lockbox (helpful if someone needs to get in your home while you’re stuck), free activation, and a price-lock guarantee with an order.
GreatCall Lively Wearable2, $49.99 product charge
Standard monthly rate: $24.99
GreatCall has multiple medical alert devices, but the company’s new Lively Wearable2 is ideal for those looking for a system that connects directly with their smartphone (even when that phone is in another room). A touch of a button on the wearable activates the Lively smartphone app, putting you in touch with GreatCall’s 24/7 5Star Urgent Response Service. Plus, the watch-like gadget looks more like a sports watch than a medical device tracker. Other features like direct communication with a medical professional and fall detection come with higher monthly payments. (Just keep in mind that the technology behind any brand’s fall detection is by no means 100% accurate, according to a doctor who spoke to Consumer Reports.)
Life Alert (no product charge)
Standard monthly rate: $50
Life Alert has been in the game for a while now. The company became famous (or infamous) decades ago for its, “Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” television commercials. The company claims to save a life from catastrophe every 11 minutes, defining that as an event when where a subscriber activated the system, had an actual emergency, was home alone, was unable to get to the phone to call for help, and Life Alert dispatched help. While there’s nothing sleek about the company’s marketing or its pendant wearable with a button to talk to 24/7 dispatchers, it has a proven record of helping customers when they most need assistance. The company asks potential buyers to call its number (800-360-0329) for a free brochure and doesn’t allow online shopping, but according to Consumer Reports, there’s a $50 monthly charge for landline or cellular service and GPS tracking is another $20 a month. Frustratingly, Life Alert also necessitates a three-year contract, so this isn’t an option for the timid shopper. (The contract is voided in the case that a customer enters a nursing home, gets 24-hour professional care, or dies.)