How to Choose an Emergency Alert System

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More than 33 percent of accidents and falls involving people over age 65 occur at home, according to the CDC. A caregiver's worries never end, particularly when the elderly parent wants to remain living in their own home – which most seniors would prefer to do for as long as possible. But what if an elderly mother falls, or dad has heart attack, stroke or any medical emergency? What if they are home alone? What if they can't get to a telephone to dial for help?

There are many devices available that will instantly summon help in the event of an emergency. Sometimes called Personal Emergency Response System, Medical Alert, or Medical Emergency Response Systems, all systems work in essentially the same way: When emergency help (medical, fire, or police) is needed, the senior presses the transmitter's button. The elderly person wears the transmitter around their neck, on their wrist, belt buckle or wheelchair. In case of emergency, the senior calls for help by simply pressing the alert button, without needing to reach the telephone.

"A medical alert system provides peace of mind for the caregiver and the elderly parent," says Ken Gross, President of Medical Alert, by Connect America, a leader in the medical alarm industry since 1977. "The senior simply presses a button and help is one the way. The transmitter sends a signal to the speaker box that is connected to the phone. The console has a two-way speaker, so the operator can hear the senior, and the senior can hear the operator. A medical alarm system provides round-the-clock monitoring 24/7."

Emergency Response Systems have three components: a small radio transmitter (a help button carried or worn by the user); a console, or base station, connected to the user's telephone; and an emergency response center that monitors calls. The console automatically dials the Central Monitoring Station. Most systems can dial out even if the phone is in use or off the hook. (This is called "seizing the line.")

In addition to dialing the emergency response center, once notified, the operator will also contact family, friends and neighbors. With so many systems on the market, what should a caregiver look for when purchasing?

What to Look for in an Emergency Response System

To help you shop for an emergency response system, consider the following suggestions, provided by Gross, whose company, Medical Alert was recommended as the best medical alert system by Good Housekeeping magazine in an article titled "Home Alone" (Nov 2005).

  • Price: Medical alert companies charge a monthly fee for monitoring services. Compare pricing, features and servicing of each system. Also, ask if the price will increase. Some companies raise the monitoring fee every year.
    "Our fee is $29.95 per month, for as long as the senior has the system. The price never goes up, so the senior and caregiver, many of whom are on tight budgets, don't have to worry about the cost going up unexpectedly."
  • Hidden Costs: There should be no up-front costs. Seniors should not have to pay for the transmitter or monitoring console. The systems should be included as part of the monthly fee.
  • Contracts: Don't sign a long-term contract. Caregivers and their aging parents should be able to cancel at any time. Read the agreement carefully before signing.
  • Experience: How long has the company been in business? Portability – Can the system be used when the elder is away from home – i.e., is it portable? Some companies offer a small base unit that is the size of an answering machine. "The senior can take the system with them when they travel, and it will work in all 50 states. It's great for snowbirds," Gross says.
  • Ease of Use: Try out the system and make sure it is easy to use. Is the emergency button large and easy for the senior to see and press? Are there any complicated instructions, buttons on the console or other features that might be troublesome for the elder to operate?

Additional Features to Look for in Emergency Response Systems

  • Waterproof: "Most accidents happen in the bathroom," Gross points out. Make sure the emergency button can be worn in the bath or shower.
  • Trained Operators: Find out what kind of training the monitoring center staff receives. It's all about the service. In the case of an emergency, when every second counts, you will want qualified care specialists to assist you and your parent.
  • Hours: Make sure the monitoring center is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for both emergency monitoring and customer service. What happens if you are having difficulty using the system? Or perhaps you have questions about your service? Make sure to ask if the medical alert company has a 24/7-customer support line available in addition to monitoring service.
  • Testing: Your emergency response company should test the system on a regular basis to make sure it is functioning properly. Ask what procedures the center uses to test systems in your home. And how often are tests conducted? "Medical Alert receives a silent signal from the home on a weekly basis, to ensure that the customer's medical alert system is connected and functioning," Gross explains.
  • Repairs: Make sure your system includes repair and replacement service. Obtaining the right medical alert system is crucial for your security and peace of mind.

Use these tips to help you make the right decision when choosing the best medical alert provider for you and your aging parents.

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30 Comments

I have found that costs average $29-$49/month. Some bill quarterly or yearly. Most have a GPS type device that is a separate cost. If your loved one has dementia/Alz and you are concerned about wandering, this may not be the best option since they would not realize they are lost and would not press the button for help or take if off and leave it somewhere.
Rejoice01, it's not that some senior citizens refuses to learn how to use a cellphone, it's because not everyone can't use the cell.... the numbers are way too small, the screen is too small, all that rolling up, rolling down, etc. and trying to hear on the cell can be difficult with all that background noise on the caller's side filtering through and the dead zones where the caller is hard to understand.

I have a cell but I use it for emergencies only, and I hate to text even though my cell has a slide out keyboard. The keyboard letter are very small and older clumsy fingers make for some rather odd looking sentences :P

I will keep my ever dependable, never need to charge, old fashioned landline telephone, thank you :)
Very good article, thank you for writing and sharing. There are many different medical alert companies out there and each one offers different service options. It is important to research before you commit to any company. Good luck.