A senior woman with a medical alert pendant.
Credit: Paul Vasarhelyi, Shutterstock
Most people would prefer to live in their own homes in their old age, rather than a nursing home. But independent living can be scary when a fall or a medical emergency could mean a one-way trip to the hospital.
Medical alert systems can make independent living safer for older adults.
"Emergency Response Technologies are important, because falls are the number one cause of death due to injury in persons age 75-plus," Andrew Carle, executive-in-residence at the Program in Senior Housing Administration at George Mason University, wrote in an email to Live Science. Falls "are also the number one cause of hospitalization due to injury for this age group."
One-third of seniors age 65 and older will fall each year, as will half of those age 85 and older, Carle said.
There are different types of medical alarm systems, but in general, they all include a pendant, or a small keychain-like device, that has a help button that automatically connects the wearer to an emergency dispatch person.
The best devices, Carle said, can detect when the wearer falls down. Upon sensing a sudden movement and impact, these devices automatically call the company's emergency dispatcher, who can check to make sure everything is all right, and connect the wearer to emergency services if not. That means these devices can save lives even if the user is unconscious, panics and forgets about the service, or is afraid or embarrassed to call for help, Carle said.
The latest medical alert devices also have a sleeker and more subtle design than older devices, whose designs could be stigmatizing, Carle said. Newer devices use wireless technology instead of radio frequency technology, which means they work everywhere, not just within the home. The company SafeGuardian offers good options, Carle said.
But even the number of home-based systems can be staggering. If these kinds of systems might fit your needs, read on for analysis of the top three, as chosen by Live Science's sister site Top Ten Reviews.
#1. Bay Alarm Medical
With the Bay Alarm Medical Alert System, users can move 500 feet (150 meters) in any direction from the console, a generous distance compared with other at-home systems. Users can choose a necklace or wristband to hold their waterproof alert pendant. Bay Alarm also offers smoke and carbon monoxide monitoring for an additional monthly fee. Unfortunately, the system does not include fall detection, GPS tracking or medication dispensers.
Ease of use: The console's large "help" button is easy to see and to press in an emergency, and installation is as simple as plugging in the console. The system works on the home's phone line, but customers without a landline can use Bay Alarm's AT&T cellular system for a slightly higher monthly fee. For a one-time set-up fee, the company will add a lockbox that emergency responders can use to get into the home if the user is incapacitated, which avoids the need for breaking windows or locks.
Help and support: Bay Alarm does not lock users into long-term contracts; customers pay a monthly fee, and can cancel the service at anytime. Bay Alarm offers service in 170 languages and provides live chat support, a rare bonus among medical alert companies.
#2. Medical Guardian
Medical Guardian Medical Alert Systems offers a 400-foot (122 m) range in each direction, and relatively subtle pendant buttons for wearing on the neck, wrist, belt or pocket. The base unit is also relatively small and sleek compared to other companies' offerings. Medical Guardian offers both an in-home system and a mobile, GPS-enabled version that users can take outside the home. The company doesn't offer smoke or carbon monoxide monitoring or fall detection, but the consoles can detect extreme temperatures and notify emergency services in the case of a fire.
Ease of use: Like most medical alert systems, Medical Guardian's uses the home's landline, and requires no special talent to install.
Help and support: Medical Guardian charges no activation or cancellation fees, and requires no long-term contracts. The company offers a 24/7 help line and live chat on its website.
LifeFone Personal Response Service offers users a 500-foot (150 m) range in any direction for its waterproof pendants, which also come with removable belt or pocket clips for those who don't want to wear the device as a bracelet or necklace. The company provides a lockbox, and also sells a large "help" button that users can affix to walls with Velcro in dangerous areas like bathrooms or hallways. The company offers smoke and carbon monoxide monitoring, but no fall detection.
Ease of use: As with any radio frequency ID system, LifeFone works on the home phone line and is easy to move around. The company also offers a cellular alarm option, partnering with AT&T to serve customers who don't have a landline. (Customers do not need an individual AT&T plan for this option.)
Unlike other companies, LifeFone offers Worldwide Protection. This gives users a card to carry in their wallets that lets emergency responders access health history and other information no matter where they are.
Help and support: Users can reach customer service 24/7 by both phone and email. Contracts are available in monthly, annual and quarterly options, and all come with free activation. The company does not charge cancellation fees should you choose to stop service. LifeFone also refunds customers for unused time after cancellation.