You’ve seen the commercials on TV: A senior falls when they’re home alone and thankfully, help is available at the push of a button. Medical alert systems first became available in the 1970s. They work using small portable alarm buttons worn around the neck or on the wrist. When the button is pressed, help is summoned through a base station that’s hooked into a telephone line or connected to a cellular network.
Variations are available, including wall-mounted help buttons, mobile on-the-go alert buttons and fall detection pendants. Offering 24/7 coverage, medical alert systems promise to get help fast whether you fall, have a seizure or experience signs of a heart attack or stroke.
Recognizing a Quality Medical Alert System
There’s currently a glut of options on the market for medical alert services, thanks in part to the growing demand from the baby boomer generation. However, by keeping a few factors in mind, you can quickly separate the good from the bad. Here’s what to look for in a medical alert system.
- They provide a choice of alarm button types. A good company will give you the option of choosing a pendant or wristband. Wristbands might irritate users with sensitive skin. Pendants can pose a choking hazard; make sure any neck cords are designed to detach when they’re tugged.
- They offer wall-mounted help buttons. If you have wall buttons mounted throughout your home, you can still call for help if you fall when not wearing your personal alarm button.
- They let you list multiple contacts. High-quality medical alert services maintain a list of contacts and let you choose who to contact for help. Maybe you just need help from a neighbor and don’t require an ambulance. They should give you that option.
- The base station has battery backup power. In the event of a power outage, you’ll still be covered by your medical alert system.
- They have a high-quality call center. The call center should be certified by the Underwriters Laboratories (UL). They’re a nonprofit company that provides standards of quality for customer care. A company has to undergo routine evaluations to make sure they continue to meet their criteria.
- They own and operate their own U.S.-based call center. If a company outsources their call center operation, they don’t have as much direct control over the quality of care or oversight over training.
Factors to Consider When Making Your Selection
You can tailor your choice of medical alert system to fit your specific needs or the needs of your loved one. Here’s what to consider.
- What kind of coverage does it have? How much coverage do you or your loved one need in terms of square feet? Will the medical alert system be used in a small ranch home or a large three story house? Does the user frequently garden in a large backyard? Make sure the medical alert system you choose has a large enough range so you’re covered everywhere in the home and yard, including the front porch.
- Does the medical alert system offer landline and cellular service? Landline service is the most reliable. If your loved one has a landline in their home, it makes sense to go with a traditional landline medical alert system. If they don’t have a phone line, a system that works on the cellular system will work just as well, no landline required.
- Does your loved one like the way the wristband or pendant looks? This might seem like a minor point, but if a senior hates the look of their pendant or wristband, they might not wear it. Most models appear basically the same, but there are some variations. It can help to look at the options available to see what style would most likely appeal to them if the wearer is self-conscious about wearing a medical alert button.
- Does the senior still run errands on their own? If so, they may benefit from a mobile medical alert pendant that can summon help wherever they go.
- Do you want fall detection? While these don’t always work 100 percent of the time, some medical alert pendants have motion detection sensors built in. They can sense when there’s a fall and automatically call for help. This typically costs an additional fee.
- Would they benefit from medication reminders? Some medical alert services offer seniors reminders for taking their medication, either automatically through a base station, over the phone, or with the help of a pill dispensing machine.
Pricing and Fine Print
Most of the top medical alert systems have similar base pricing. The difference, however, is in the details. The list below explains what to expect.
Each billing agreement differs from company to company. Typically, you can choose from monthly, quarterly or annual billing plans. If you go with a yearly plan, you pay the full year’s price up front, usually at a discounted rate. You might also receive other incentives like free accessories and shipping. However, if you cancel your service before the annual plan is up, the majority of companies will not give you any refunds for the months you don’t use the service.
Monthly plans usually allow you to cancel anytime without penalty. However, this varies by company. Some services claim their plan is monthly, but the fine print says you must commit for three months or a year. Always confirm your minimum obligation when you sign up.
Add-ons are items you pay for on top of your base rate for the service. For example, many companies consider fall detection an add-on service and charge an extra amount each month for it. Some companies charge a one-time fee for additional pendants, lockboxes or wall buttons, but others will charge a small monthly fee for those items for as long as you have them.
Some companies will charge a one-time activation fee to start your service on top of your regular base rate. This seems to be more common for cellular based medical alert systems.
The majority of medical alert companies say you can cancel their service at any time. This is generally true, but it doesn’t always mean you’ll get a refund, depending on the contract you signed. Also, keep in mind that most companies won’t stop billing you until they have your returned equipment in hand. You almost always have to send it back at your own expense.
Most companies don’t charge cancellation fees as long as you return the medical alert equipment to them in good condition. However, as mentioned above, if you’ve signed up for a contract, most will not refund what’s left in your contract if you cancel early. It’s the chance you take in order to get a discount off the overall price.
Some customers wrongly believe that when a company says their equipment is “included free,” that it’s theirs to keep. But in reality, the equipment is only “on loan” to you because you must return it in working condition if you cancel your service. If you don’t, you’ll likely be charged anywhere from $150 – $350 for the lost or damaged equipment. Some companies offer warranties for purchase to cover your medical alert system against damage or loss.
In your search for the best medical alert system, narrow your selection down to high-quality companies. Then drill down further to the company that best fits your coverage needs or the needs of your loved one. Finally, make sure you fully understand your obligations before you sign a contract. Whenever possible, ask to have the details sent to you in writing before you commit. In the end, doing a little homework will be worth the peace of mind you’ll gain from a reliable medical alert system.