Can a medical alert device help you or a loved one age in place?
Falls are a leading cause of injury for the elderly. Many families turn to medical alert systems to allow seniors to live independently as long as possible. (Stock Photo)

Older and disabled adults who live on their own value their independence, but that independence may come with a cost: The inability to summon help in case of sudden illness or a fall.

For peace of mind, for themselves and their families, many turn to medical alert systems, which have been around since the 1980s. Typically, they provide a wearable help button — usually in the form of a pendant or wristband — that puts you in touch with a dispatcher who is able to summon emergency help or contact a friend or family member.

If you were to go by the TV commercials, you’d think there is only one or two companies out there selling medical alert systems. (“Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”) However, there are a lot of companies selling many different systems with different features.

If you’re considering a medical alert system for yourself or a loved one, here are some questions to ask and tips for selecting the right system for you.

Should you consider a medical alert device?

This seems like a simple question, but it’s not. Adult children are always concerned about safety, and seniors are always concerned about independence. Consequently, some seniors object to medical alert systems because of the perception that they are feeble or infirm.

Doctors may not know much about the home environment and so are unable to offer useful guidance. However, they should be able to advise you and your loved one about history or likelihood of falls, stroke and other emergencies.

However, it is ultimately up to the person who will be wearing the device. If they get one just to get the kids off their back, they will often “forget” to put it on.

What kind of system is right for you?

Original medical alert systems were designed to work

with landline telephones. Those are still available, but today most systems operate over cellular networks with GPS, satellite location technology. If you or your loved one is still active, you will want to consider a mobile, rather than home-based, system.

In addition, different systems vary in their range. Does your parent live in an 800-square-foot apartment or a 1,500-square-foot home? You will want to take range into consideration to ensure proper coverage.

Most medical alert systems are monitored, meaning a dispatcher can be contacted 24/7 with the push of a button. This might be the better option if family members don’t live nearby. But there are also non-monitored systems that will call an individual’s emergency contacts.

These days, you can have a fall-detection feature for an additional monthly fee. To ensure better accuracy, the alert device should be one that’s worn around the neck or on a waistband. There are also systems designed for those with diminished cognitive ability, such as Alzheimer’s patients.

How much do medical alert systems cost?

According to, 24/7 emergency monitoring is available for as little as $20 a month, with a separate monthly fee for fall monitoring. Some systems require an annual contract, while others have monthly subscriptions. Look out for activation and cancellation fees, which can inflate your cost.

Fall detection add-ons run from an additional $5 per month to as much as $20. Another important consideration whether you need a lockbox to give access to the home or apartment.

The dispatcher typically provides a lockbox code to emergency responders. Sometimes, this is an additional cost.

So, when looking at systems, be sure to get the features you need and that you have a full understanding of the costs — read the contract! This is important because these systems are an out-of-pocket expense, not covered by Medicare or private insurance.

Are there alternatives?

Smart home technology (Google Assistant, Siri, Alexa and the like) is playing a larger and larger role in health care. Recently, Amazon announced the launch of a new subscription service that uses its voice recognition system to assist and keep tabs on a loved one.

Alexa Together, which costs $199 a year, provides a professional monitoring service, urgent response and fall detection, allowing the user to say “Alexa, call for help” to an Echo speaker and be connected with an agent. The agent can then request the dispatch of police, the fire department or an ambulance, and Alexa also sends a notification to the designated caregiver.

If you or an older loved one are determined to live independently at home, do your homework to determine whether a medical alert system would be an important addition to your health care team.

• A critical care nurse for 30+ years, Teri Dreher is founder of NShore Patient Advocates ( She is offering a free phone consultation to Daily Herald readers at (847) 612-6684.