1. Are you willing to wear it?
It won’t do any good if it’s not on your body when you have an emergency.
2. Are you willing to press the button when you need help?
Some would rather lie on the floor with a broken hip than have people make a fuss over them.
3. Will the system work when you need it?
While almost every system on the market is reliable, each system also has gotchas that mean it won’t work in every single situation. Your equipment and your service plan make a big difference.
Take the emotional issues seriously
If you’re like me, you want to brush over the first two things on this list, especially if you’re doing research on behalf of a loved one. Of course they’ll want to have a senior life alert. Of course they’ll wear it.
Let me tell you a little story.
Before my friend Ralph died, his son, on my advice, got him a medical alert system. We were all worried about him because he was 96 and starting to get a bit tottery. He would still take out his own garbage and walk down to the end of the block to get a newspaper, and he still drove over to his son’s house about once a week. But other than that he spent many hours home alone in front of the TV. If he had an emergency anywhere but in his TV-watching chair, he was going to be in trouble.
Ralph went along with the plan to get a medical alert, but he wasn’t enthusiastic about it.
He got one that would work inside the house and also in the yard so he could get help if he tripped while taking out the garbage or puttering in his shop.
But every time I came to visit, the life alert panic button was… you guessed it… on his bedside table.
People have good reasons for not wearing their medical alert button
Let’s start with the fact that most panic buttons are ugly. No way around it. They’re embarrassing. People don’t lose their sense of taste and style just because they’re old.
Some panic buttons are too big. They might not be ugly, but they catch on your clothing or dangle uncomfortably around your neck.
Sometimes it’s hard to remember to carry it. You put it down and then forget it.
And that doesn’t even count memory issues that come from dementia. (These systems aren’t very good for people with dementia, anyway.)
So you really have to ask the hard questions: Are you interested in wearing a medical alert button? And if you’re willing in theory, can you find a specific one that you can tolerate?
People have reasons (not necessarily good ones) for not pushing the button when they need help
My grandmother was like this. Never wanted to trouble anyone. Happy to suffer in silence rather than put anyone out.
You might think this is crazy, especially when you’re paying a monthly fee precisely so that you can have people help you out when you need it. And maybe it is. But good luck changing it.
What can you do if you’ve got an elderly relative who falls into this category?
It’s tricky. In the end, you have to make peace with the fact that people get to make their own decisions. But it’s worth a conversation. And remember that what we think we’ll do in the future isn’t always realistic, especially if we’re in pain. So the fact that a person says they would be embarrassed to call for help, or has a history of not doing so, doesn’t necessarily mean they wouldn’t.
But it comes back to the crucial issue of whether they will wear it.
Will the life alert work when you need it?
So let’s assume you’ve got a person who is willing to wear their panic button and is also willing to push it when they need help.
What happens then?
Unfortunately there are several things that can go wrong.
This is where we start talking about the different kinds of medical alert systems. It’ll help if I define a few different types.
Speakerphone medical alerts are the old-fashioned ones that have a base station speakerphone and a small wrist button worn like a watch. All the button does is activate the base station, which is programmed to dial a monitoring center. When it reaches the monitoring center, your information comes up on a screen and the agent asks if you’re okay. If you’re close enough to the base station to be heard, you can have a conversation. Otherwise they will try to call you on the phone. If that doesn’t work, they’ll send help.
Talk-through-the-pendant medical alerts are pretty similar, in that they have a base station, but they’re different because the speakerphone is actually in the pendant you carry around. This means you don’t have to worry about whether you’re in shouting range of the base station, or if there are doors or noise (think running water in the bathroom) that interferes.
Mobile medical alerts have no base station. They are self-contained units that contain a dedicated cell phone and a speaker. They connect directly to the monitoring center through a cellular connection.
No-fee alerts are a subset of all of these types. These systems work just the same as the others, except they don’t dial a professionally-staffed monitoring center. Instead they are programmed to dial a pre-stored list of your friends and family, or dial 911.
Things that can go wrong with a senior alert
The batteries in the panic button can be dead. This doesn’t happen much, but it’s something people worry about. With most systems, there are automatic checks of battery level, and the system will notify you if the batteries need to be replaced. Batteries in the old speakerphone medical alerts can last years. The talk-through-the-pendant ones last months, and the mobile ones need charging every few days. So the biggest worry is with the mobile systems.
The phone line (or cellular connection) can fail. If you have a landline connected to your medical alert, it’s very rare for it to fail. The line has to be dead. In most places, this hardly ever happens. If you have no landline and your base station has a cellular connection, you have to rely on the strength of that signal. And if you’re using a mobile medical alert you’re dependent on the signal in the location where you have your emergency. (Sometimes cell signals can be weak inside houses.)
You can be out of range. The activation range of the panic buttons is usually 500 to 1000 feet, but it depends on what else is around. Some units only work within 100 feet of the base station (avoid these). My rule of thumb is to take the maximum range listed by the company and take a quarter of it. That will account for thick walls, interference, and other issues. If you have a large property and fall at the far end, your system may not activate.
You an be out of voice range. Sounds like the same issue, but it’s not. With standard speakerphone medical alerts, if you’re at the far end of the house you won’t be able to have a conversation with the responder in the monitoring center. Same if you’re behind a door or two. Or in the bathroom (where most falls take place). With a talk-through-the-pendant model this isn’t a problem. It also isn’t a problem for mobile medical alarms.
The person who answers the call may not be competent to respond. This is only really a problem with the so-called “no-fee” alerts, where the machine dials friends and family rather than professionals. Your son doesn’t answer. Your daughter is in a meeting and can’t answer her phone. Your neighbor’s daughter answers the call next, but she’s only 8, and so on. It’s highly unlikely that a professional monitoring center would badly flub your call. Some people put a lot of weight on having a call center that’s owned by the company, but that’s a subject for a different post.
The wrong kind of help will be sent. You might be surprised how often I see newspaper articles about people who have been saved from fires by their life alert systems. It’s not just falls! That’s part of why I think it’s important for you to be able to have real voice-to-voice contact with the monitoring center. If you’ve fallen, you might just need a neighbor to come help you up, not a full ambulance response. If your house is on fire, you don’t need an ambulance. You need the fire department. If someone is breaking in, you need the police, not the fire department.
Responders won’t be able to get into your home quickly. Obviously the response time of the local emergency personnel is not in your control, but once they reach the house, can they get in? If the house is locked and there is no lockbox, the responders will be delayed as they force their way in. That’s why it’s so important to have a key in a lockbox outside. And there needs to be someone who knows the code. If you have a monitored medical alert (recommended), then you give this code to the monitoring center. They will provide it to the emergency responders.
So what now…?
You can see there are a lot of concerns and questions. And if you’ve made it to the bottom of this very long page, you really want to know one thing. Which senior life alert system is the best?
The answer is, it depends.
If you’re homebound, you’ll be okay with pretty much any system. If you’re still active outside your home (in the yard and around town) you’ll want to consider a cellular/mobile medical alert or a hybrid alert.
See the reviews tab on this website for more details on different systems. Or if you’re just ready to visit one more site and make a purchase, I would recommend going to Medical Guardian (affiliate link). They are a respected company that sells standard speakerphone medical alerts (both landline and cellular), high-end mobile medical alerts, and both home-based and mobile systems that have automatic fall detection. Pretty much no matter your needs, they can help you.