To the person considering buying a medical alert system:
Medical alert systems can save your life.
You should get one.
But you have to be careful.
I’m sure you’ve heard of the bald-faced cheats and swindlers and scammers that prey on vulnerable seniors. These are the telemarketing scams you hear about in the newspaper and on TV. Sleazy people call up and promise a “free medical alert system.” The victims end up paying through the nose for a second-rate system. Or if they’re truly unlucky, they end up losing their life savings in an identity theft scam.
Thankfully, it’s pretty easy to defend against these kinds of scammers. Especially if you use two simple tricks which I’ll share later in this letter.
But your biggest danger isn’t those super-nasty scammers. You’re smarter than that.
Instead it’s the ordinary medical alert companies you need to watch out for.
The ones you’ll find with a quick search on the Internet.
The ones you see advertising on TV and in major magazines.
Because although they’re “legitimate” companies, they’re not on your side.
They’re perfectly happy to use high-pressure sales tactics to get you to buy a medical alert system that isn’t really right for your situation.
Or to slip their fingers into your wallet and liberate a few dollars “without you noticing.”
(Not stealing it. You agreed to the deal. You just didn’t realize what you were agreeing to.)
I’ll help you defend yourself against these tactics.
Keep reading, because on this page you’ll learn–
– The trick some companies use to get you to pay up to $120 for an item you can buy for about $17 at your local hardware store.
– Three questions you’ll want to ask before signing up for any service.
– Why money back guarantees aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. And the one little trick to making sure you’re covered.
– The psychological tactic some companies use to get you to sign a long-term contract that protects them, not you.
– The simple 4-word question you must ask or risk making a big mistake.
– How you can flush $1000 down the drain if you’re not paying attention.
– The one factor that determines if a medical alert will really protect you. Hint: it’s something none of the companies want you to think about.
– And more…
I’m not trying to scare you.
Think of me as your guide through the swamp. I’ll show you where the muddy sinkholes are, but also where you can walk to get to the other side.
I want to help you find the right alert, buy it, and use it.
First off, just in case you’re wondering, no, I was never a kid sitting in my tree-fort dreaming about growing up to be an expert on medical alarms.
It happened by accident, because of two things that happened in my family.
It started with my grandmother.
She was in her mid-90s, living alone in the 3-story house in the city. My grandfather had died some 30 years earlier, and she’d been alone a long time.
She hardly went up to the 3rd floor at all, but her bedroom was on the second, and it was a pretty long staircase going up, with a landing. She was always going up and down, and as long as she took it slow she was fine.
One night, getting ready for bed, she fell on the stairs. She tumbled down to the landing and broke her hip.
There was no one to help.
She couldn’t get to the phone. There was one up at the top of the stairs in her bedroom. Another was in a little Harry Potter closet below the stairs. Right below where she was, actually. But those phones might as well have been on the moon.
So she lay there.
Until a friend came by to visit her around lunchtime the next day.
My grandmother survived her ordeal. But recovery from her broken hip was slow. She moved into assisted living. Tried to get stronger. Lived another half-dozen years. But she never spent another night in that house.
At the time I didn’t know much about medical alert systems, but like everyone else in my generation I’d seen those “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” commercials.
So I knew enough to wish that someone had gotten her one.
Even one of those truly old-fashioned systems would have helped her get help a little faster. She wouldn’t have had to spend that agonizing night on the landing. And who knows? It might have made her recovery faster if she’d gotten to the hospital sooner. The rest of her life could have turned out differently.
So that was the first thing.
The second thing happened a few years later.
By now you might have figured out that I’m the kind of person who likes to research a decision pretty carefully before making it.
My ex-mother-in-law (a wonderful person – don’t start thinking this is a mother-in-law rant) is pretty much the exact opposite.
One day I heard she’d bought a medical alert system for her mother, who was now living alone in the family house back in the midwest.
I was curious, so I went online to take a look at the system she’d purchased.
(Remember, I really didn’t know anything at this point.)
I went to the company’s website. It was kind of confusing. Borderline manipulative. And they were cagey about pricing.
It set off alarm bells for me.
So I looked for reviews.
My heart just sank.
There were so many negative ones!
And she’d locked herself into a 3-year contract. Hundreds of people were posting complaints that they couldn’t get out of the contract even though they were experiencing bad service.
And when their loved one died, the company wouldn’t just take their word for it.
No, they had to send a death certificate to make the company stop taking its monthly payments.
Because that’s exactly what you want to be doing in the days after your parent dies, right?
It made me mad.
Was every company this bad?
Nope. It only took me a few minutes of searching to figure out that this company — although one of the biggest — was an outlier.
Most companies didn’t require a long-term contract. And it turned out they were not only much more transparent about their pricing, but cheaper, too.
Hint: if you have to call a company to find out what their system costs, it usually means it costs more than it should.
But my quick search of the Internet also left me confused. Aside from avoiding that terrible system, how were you supposed to choose?
The web pages for these companies all looked so similar. Even the names were hard to keep straight. They seemed to be selling almost identical equipment, but at different price points. And even though the pictures were the same, some of the claims about range and features were different.
How was anyone supposed to make sense of this?
That’s when the lightbulb suddenly went on.
What if I could help people make this decision? What if I could study these systems and cut through all the garbage so people like my parents or my ex-mother-in-law could get real, helpful information and make a better decision?
What if I could help people like you, who are worried about a loved one who is getting older?
People who have better things to do than spend hours staring at different websites trying to compare pros and cons.
So I decided to help.
That was back in 2009.
I built a website that explained everything, as best I understood it. Slowly it started to get traffic. Then there were thousands and thousands of people coming to it.
But I’ll be honest. Over time the site got disorganized. It started to sprawl out and sometimes go in circles. New systems came on the market and I didn’t always keep up. Sometimes I would realize people were finding my old advice instead of my current thinking.
I realized I needed to start fresh. You’re looking the result.
Each day in the USA, thousands of people buy medical alert systems. And many of them buy the wrong one.
(You can help me reach more people. If you find what I’m saying helpful, please share it.)
Here’s the map of the road ahead:
First, we’ll do a basic introduction to medical alert systems, just so we’re all on the same page.
Second, we’ll walk through my guide to how to find the right medical alert for your situation. It’s really JUST TWO QUESTIONS, and I try to keep a complex decision as simple as possible.
Third, we’ll cover some of the dirty tricks you have to watch out for.
Fourth, you’ll see some common mistakes people make, and how to avoid them.
Fifth, we’ll go over some special cases, like memory loss.
FIRST: A basic introduction to medical alert systems:
Let’s go over the basics so we understand each other well.
I know you’re tempted to skip this. Please don’t.
I’ll make it as quick as I can.
What medical alerts do:
– They are systems that allow you to call for help when you can’t make a phone call. In the early days the use case was that you’d fallen and couldn’t get up to reach the phone. But now we understand there are many reasons why you might not be able to make a phone call.
– Medical alarms and medical alerts are the exact same thing. I use the words interchangeably.
– All of them have two basic parts. a) the panic button that you press if there is an emergency and b) a system that communicates with the outside world, whether that is a monitoring center, 911, or some other way of getting help.
– Some units have a base station that does the communicating. In others, like cellular medical alerts, both the panic button and the communicator are in the same unit.
Monitored vs non-monitored
– Most systems programmed to dial a monitoring center. Trained professionals answer the call and send help. The right kind of help.
– Others are auto-dialers. Two kinds here. Some just dial 911. Others dial the numbers of your pre-selected friends and family.
Home based vs mobile
– One big distinction between systems are the ones that are “home based” and the ones that are “mobile” and work inside and away from home.
All kinds of phone lines
– You can find home-based systems that work with land lines, VOIP internet telephones, or that have their own dedicated cell phone inside them.
That wasn’t so hard, right?
SECOND: Step by step how to find the right alert for your situation
Okay, now I’m going to walk you through how to find the right medical alert for your situation.
It really comes down to two major questions, which I’ll get to in a minute.
Step 1: Stop looking at medical alarm company websites!
It’s the wrong way to do your research.
Right now you’ve probably got yourself confused by looking at too many different websites from the different companies.
Later you can go look at these sites. But that’s AFTER you know what you’re looking for.
The sites are too confusing and incomplete and sometimes borderline manipulative to start there. You’ll just get yourself turned in circles.
Step 2: Stop going to so-called “review sites”
Argh. There are so many of these medical alarm review sites on the internet. They make me mad, because they’re NOT helpful.
Their only reason to exist is to try to get affiliate commissions out of the companies by sending you to them. They’re not interested in really helping you.
Here’s one way it works. You visit a site and it offers to give you 3 quotes from top rated medical alert companies. You stick in your information. Boom, your phone starts ringing with pushy salespeople from medical alert companies.
What’s happened is that instead of providing quotes, the website simply passed your contact information on to 3 different companies that all pay a commission. Sometimes they pay $10 or so the second you submitted the form. Sometimes they only pay if you buy.
The website owner laughs all the way to the bank, but he hasn’t really helped you.
The other way it works is the website claims to be ranking companies in some quality order. But you’ll find they’re just repeating the same incomplete information from the manufacturers’ websites. And their whole goal is to get you to click on the link for one of the “top rated” systems, because when you do so, they will stand to make a commission if you end up purchasing.
You won’t be surprised to learn that the “top rated” systems are generally the ones that pay the highest commission rates.
Step 3: Ask yourself 2 important questions
These are the big ones. If you’re skimming, slow down and read carefully.
Question #1: Are you willing to spend $30 to $50 a month to be safe?
(As a side note, I use the word “you” as if you’re buying this for yourself. In fact, most people are looking for a system for a relative or loved one, but it’s really awkward to keep saying that, so I stick with “you.”)
It’s totally fine if you’re not willing to spend the money on a system to keep safe. There are other ways to work things out so you get some level of protection. But it’s going to be more complicated. You’ll face some harder decisions.
And if your goal is to save as much money as possible, you might actually end up making a mistake that will cost you more in the long run. (I’ll get into that later in this letter.)
“About a dollar a day”
That’s what $30 a month works out to, and it sure doesn’t sound like much when you put it that way. That’s probably less than you spend on coffee. Not much to pay for peace of mind.
But a dollar a day over two and a half years, which is about the average length of time a person has a medical alert system, is pretty close to $900.
That’s a lot of money, and I hope it’s enough to make this decision one you take seriously!
Of course, the other way of thinking about this is to ask what would happen if you didn’t spend the money. All the time I read stories like my grandmother’s, where an elderly person falls and no one finds them for hours or days. How much would it be worth to you not to spend that night on the floor? Or to get help faster and maybe have a speedier recovery. You know that each day you spend in a hospital costs thousands of dollars, so anything you can do to get treatment started quickly, when there is the highest chance of positive outcome, can save you a lot of money in hospital costs.
The statistic you see everywhere is that one out of 3 people over 65 will fall. And a fall costs an average of $30,000.
On balance, I think a medical alarm is a totally worthwhile thing to spend money on, as long as it’s not taking away your food money, or putting you at risk of losing your house.
Question #2: Are you homebound?
This is the big question. The one most other websites and articles don’t want to face up to directly.
Homebound means you spend all or almost all your time at home. When you do go out, it’s with a companion.
Doesn’t matter if it’s a family member or a paid caregiver. If you’re outside, someone is with you.
A lot of the things you used to do, like gardening or even taking the trash out to the curb — you don’t do those anymore.
The opposite of homebound is what we’re going to call “active.” If that’s you, you’re still out and about on your own. Grocery shopping, shoveling the sidewalk, raking leaves, running errands. Maybe you have some health concerns sneaking up on you, and your balance isn’t what it was 10 years ago, but you’re still going strong.
And yes, there’s a gray area in between as well. We’ll get to that.
So pick your answers to these to important questions. Are you willing to spend $30+ per month? And where you fall on this spectrum: Homebound, in the middle, or active?
Now we’re ready to start talking about how to match up your needs to the systems that are on the market.
Let’s talk money first.
If you’re willing to spend $30 a month, I want to suggest that you look exclusively at “monitored medical alerts,” which are systems that connected you to a professional emergency monitoring center.
The alternative is to buy one of the “no-fee” medical alerts that simply dial a pre-programmed list of numbers. Or they just call 911.
That’s because the only real advantage these systems have is the lower cost. You buy the unit up front (for between $200 and $300 for a decent one) and then you don’t have to pay anything more.
But the disadvantages are significant. The biggest is that you can’t really rely on getting good help fast. What if none of your people are near their phones? What if the person you reach panics and can’t provide the help you need?
So I’m a fan of the monitored medical alert systems.
Now let’s talk homebound vs active.
As I mentioned above, there are two basic styles of medical alert system.
The first is the old-fashioned “base station speakerphone” model. It has a base station that plugs into your wall. It’s about the size of an answering machine. Remember those? Then you wear a lightweight panic button on your wrist or as a necklace.
The other is the “mobile medical alert” that’s an all-in-one unit that works anywhere you can get a cell signal.
If you’re homebound, you’ll do fine with one of the old-fashioned units.
Luckily (or unluckily) there are a lot of these on the market, by a variety of companies. They pretty much all work the same. Some companies even use more than one style, or they might send you one from a different manufacturer than the ones they picture on their website.
Because you’re homebound, the limited range of these units won’t really be a problem for you.
But I should explain what I mean by “range.”
On most medical alert company websites they’ll claim that they have a range of 600 feet or even 1000 feet.
That’s the range at which the panic button can activate the base station.
Great. But if you can imagine trying to have a conversation with your answering machine from one end of a football field to another, you can see that these claims of long ranges don’t tell the whole story.
An those claimed ranges are open air, no walls or interference. In practice, I would think you should cut any range claims by 75%, so a 600 foot range is really 150 feet. That’s plenty big for most houses. And for most homebound people you’ll be able to install the base station in a location where you can more or less hear it from anywhere in the part of the house you usually occupy.
(I’ll go into more detail about this “communications range” problem in a few moments.)
You will have a couple of challenges. The first is figuring out which company to buy from. For that you’ll want to read the sections below that are all about the dirty tricks some companies play, and how to avoid common mistakes people make when selecting a company.
And you’ll want to evaluate which unit you will not only like, but also wear and use.
(Because a panic button you don’t wear won’t do you any good.)
So that’s for homebound people.
If you’re very active, your decision is also fairly simple.
You need a mobile system. There are a handful of good ones and a whole bunch of substandard ones. The good ones will give you protection both at home (inside and out) and when you are out and about, anywhere you can get a cell signal. The best have GPS, and of course you only want one that has real 2-way communication through the pendant you carry around.
(You wouldn’t think this, but there are companies selling very poorly designed mobile medical alerts that are little more than pagers. Some of them look like the kind of cheap plastic product you would get as a prize in a cereal box. And some of these cost just as much as the top of the line models.)
Some of the top of the line units even have automatic fall detection. That means they can figure out if you’ve fallen down. They’ll start the emergency call even if you can’t.
These good mobile systems work in your house. And the big benefit is that you’re carrying around the whole system. So you don’t have to shout to be heard. You don’t have to worry about being in the bathroom, or in a noisy place, where you can’t hear and talk to the person who is responding to your emergency.
Because that happens. I’ve read accounts of people who have activated their speakerphone-style systems from their bedroom when they realized the house was on fire, but they couldn’t communicate with the monitoring center so an ambulance was sent instead of the fire department.
You just need a good cell signal where you live. (That cuts me out of it – I’m in the countryside and the cell service here is spotty.)
Yes, these mobile systems are a bit more bulky than the wrist buttons or neck pendants for the old-fashioned systems. That’s because they have to have a tiny speakerphone in them. And GPS systems, if that’s part of what’s offered. But on the good side, they’re usually more attractive than those wrist buttons.
We’ve covered “homebound” and we’ve covered “active.”
What about the gray area in between homebound and active?
You’re not homebound. But you’re not 100% independent anymore. You’re still gardening, doing chores, working in the garage or walking down the street to get a coffee and a newspaper. You’re just not doing it as fast, or as often.
Maybe you’re even still driving.
But no matter what, you’re still home for long stretches. Alone. For days at a time, it’s just you and the television.
This is the gray area my wife’s grandfather was in for a few years at the end of his life. He lived alone, but was getting increasingly unsteady on his feet. But he was still driving. Just to the grocery store, his medical appointments, and his son’s house. But that meant walking through the backyard to the parking spot by the detached garage, with any number of tripping hazards. And every day he walked down the cement front steps to get a newspaper from the box on the corner.
What’s the best system for this situation?
It’s a trade-off.
If you rely on a basic in-home speakerphone system, you won’t be completely protected once you step outside your house.
But if you choose a mobile system, there’s a chance you won’t be protected as well inside your house. That chance depends on your habits. So you have to be honest with yourself…
It’ll help if we try to bring this trade-off to life.
Let’s imagine you’re in a situation like my wife’s grandfather, with a detached garage at the back of your property. One evening you go out to get something out of a storage box out there, and you trip on the sill of the garage. You fall to the concrete floor and break your hip. It’s dark; you didn’t bring a flashlight and you hadn’t yet turned on the garage lights. No one can see you.
Scenario 1: No medical alert
You never got around to buying that medical alert system you were researching. So you’ll be lying here until someone finds you. Your son calls every day, but you spoke about half an hour ago, so he won’t be calling until tomorrow afternoon. You shout for help, but no one hears you. The cement floor is cold. It’s going to be a long, long night.
Scenario 2: Standard base-station alert
You have a standard base-station alert system. The base station is in the house, in the living room. When you test the system – which you do every month – it’s easy to hear the person responding. But now you’re far away, and you’ve never tested this (though maybe you should have). You press the button on your wrist.
Because you’re so far away, you don’t know if it worked. You can’t hear whether the machine turned on. (Most of these units make a loud alarm sound once they’re activated; probably you could hear it 50 feet from your house, but that would depend on how noisy it was outside, or how soundproofed your house was.)
It did work, so the monitoring company gets on the line and asks if you’re okay. There’s no answer. They listen. The house is quiet. They don’t know if it’s a false alarm, so they call the house phone. Which of course you don’t answer.
Depending on the protocol you have set up with the monitoring company, several things could happen next. The basic response is for the company to notify the local emergency services. Now, you have to keep in mind that police blotters around the country are filled with “false alarm” medical alert calls. So a call where they don’t know for sure is an emergency may not get the fastest response, depending what else is going on in your neighborhood at that moment.
Another possibility is that you’ve set things up so that the monitoring center tries to notify a neighbor or relative to have them check on you.
Either way, you will get help. Eventually. It might take an hour, but that’s certainly better than spending the night on the cold cement floor, and maybe dying of exposure.
Keep in mind, of course, that while falls are generally fairly forgiving of delays, not every emergency is. A heart attack or stroke requires a much quicker response.
Scenario 3: Mobile medical alert
You have a mobile medical alert. And it’s charged up. And you’re carrying it. So when you fall in the garage you press the button. The system connects to the monitoring center, and when the agent answers you tell them what’s happened. Together you decide you need to go straight to the hospital, so they dispatch and ambulance and then they call your son and he stays on the call with you until the ambulance arrives.
Same quick response if you’re having a heart attack or stroke. Or if you cut yourself on some sharp tool in the garage.
Some of the better mobile systems even have automatic fall detection, so if you hit your head going down and got knocked out, it will automatically start the emergency call.
These three scenarios show us 3 things.
First, a medical alert system is a good thing to have.
Second, anything is better than nothing.
Third, for good safety protection around your house, not just in it, you need a system with two-way communication built right into the panic button. Relying on a distant base station slows everything down.
But in every case, you have to be wearing or carrying the panic button.
One solution you’ll definitely want to check out is the “hybrid” home and away medical alert system, which consists of both a base station style and a mobile unit.
(Mobile units are also available as an add-on from some providers.)
But there are important things to be wary of with some of these hybrid systems. I cover those on the detail page about them, which you can link to at the bottom of the page.
And that’s pretty much the end of Step 3.
Before we go on, let’s have a brief intermission for some common questions:
Question: If mobile systems work everywhere, what are the downsides?
Great question. Although mobile systems provide much better coverage than speakerphone systems, they do have two major downsides.
First, they’re bulkier. With an old-school system you just strap the panic button to your wrist and “forget it” until you need it. The buttons are light weight and unobtrusive. (But ugly.) The batteries last for years. Unless you take it off at night or when you leave the house (not recommended), you really don’t have to think about it again.
In contrast, a mobile system is bigger. Some are pretty small – not much bigger than the key fob for your car – but they’re too big to wear on your wrist. Some are as big as a deck of cards, though you’re probably too smart to buy one of those. But you have to commit to carrying it around with you. In a pocket. Clipped to your belt. Around your neck. If you put it down and don’t pick it up again, you’re not protected.
Second, you have to recharge the batteries. Battery life varies a lot. As little as a day or as much as a month, depending on the unit. The higher quality ones with more features tend to max out at a couple of days of run time. Some stripped down ones (without GPS location capabilities, for example) last longer.
So you not only have to remember to charge it, but you have to remember to pick it up again. With good habits and a good memory, this is easy. Especially if you really want to have it. But if you’re not sold on it, or you can’t be bothered, you’re going to leave it behind just at the moment when you could really use it, like during that midnight trip to the bathroom.
It really comes down to your habits. So you’ll have to make that decision for yourself. Some homebound people will prefer the mobile system, and some fairly active people will prefer the speakerphone system. In both cases, they’re making a decision that the tradeoffs are worth it.
Question: Why not just use my cellphone instead of getting a medical alert?
This question comes up for a lot of people, especially those who carry their cell phone everywhere they go.
In fact, a cell phone can be a fantastic device in an emergency. You can use it to call 911, or a relative, or a neighbor. It helps if you’ve thought things through beforehand, of course, and you have those numbers programmed in and easy to find.
If you have your cell phone with you when you fall in the garage, you’re covered.
If it’s with you when you trip on the way to the bathroom, you’re covered.
Some cell phones – like the Jitterbug – even come with a direct connection to a monitoring center that can be your on-call source of help.
But cell phones aren’t perfect. They require frequent charging. And they’re even bulkier than the mobile medical alerts.
And I think we overestimate how close our cell phones are to us. Maybe it’s in your purse, or on the table. Or in your coat pocket. Sure, it’s “right there” if it rings. But if you head back to the bedroom to look for your glasses and trip over something, the living room is going to feel very, very far away.
THIRD: Dirty tricks companies play on you
I promised way up at the top of this letter that I’d tell you how to avoid the dirty tricks some companies try to play.
Dirty trick #1: Long-term contracts
There is NO REASON to sign a long-term contract that obligates you to keep using a particular system, and which locks you into payments whether or not the system works for you.
With any monitored system you’ll have to sign a contract of some sort, one that sets out the scope of the services being provided. That’s fine. Read it carefully. But it shouldn’t require you to keep paying even if you’re unhappy.
There is a big player in the industry that requires 3-year contracts. And to add insult to injury, as I understand it they used to have a clause specifying an automatic renewal of the contract for another 3 years if you didn’t cancel by a specific time.
When asked, their reps claim that the contract protects the user by guaranteeing a high level of service.
That’s faulty logic right on the face of it.
Sure, the company promises good service, but the internet is full of complaints about the service provided by this company. Obviously the contract isn’t helping. That’s because the company has no significant reason to improve: the customers are stuck with them for the term of the contract. And the rate they charge is higher than most, meaning that the 3-year commitment costs almost $1,000 more than a competitor’s service.
That’s what I call a $1,000 mistake.
A contract is only as good as the company behind it, unless you’re willing to take them to court. Which is going to cost you more than $1,000. So you’re left only being able to say, “You promised.” Which doesn’t help you get your money back.
In contrast, if a company sells you service on a month-to-month basis (often for less than this other company charges), they have a built-in motivation to do a great job.
If they don’t provide good service, you can leave.
The standard advice is to test your system monthly. What do you think will happen if you place that test call and the monitoring center doesn’t answer?
That’s right. You’ll be gone as soon as you can order a system from a different company.
The reps from this first company also claim the contract protects you against future price increases.
Okay, but… For one thing, prices don’t rise much in this industry. I’ve been researching it since 2009 and it feels like the average monthly price has gone up about $3 during that time.
Plus many companies promise to keep you at the same rate you started at, even if they raise their prices for new customers.
So I don’t see that price protection as very valuable.
Especially against what you stand to lose. Not only can you not ditch the company if their service doesn’t meet your needs, but if something better comes along, you’re stuck.
It’s not the 1990s anymore. Medical alert technology is evolving. Your needs may change, or something may come along that’s better than anything on the market right now. You want to be able to make the change with minimal headache.
Dirty Trick #2: Charging monthly for extras
Okay, maybe this one isn’t really a “dirty” trick, but sometimes the way medical alert companies charge for extras will end up costing you a lot more than it should.
The biggest example here is the “lockbox.” A lockbox is an important part of your total system. It’s what allows you to get help without the emergency responders having to break a window or smash your door.
It’s just a small locked box big enough for a key. It hangs on a doorknob or screws into an outside part of your house. A person can only get the key if they have the combination. You share the combo with the monitoring company, and they can give it out to emergency responders if you need to be rescued.
Lockboxes cost about $17 at the hardware store.
But several companies are happy to sell you one for the bargain price of just $4 a month.
Over 30 months, you’ll end up paying $120 for a lockbox you don’t even own.
Some companies will sell you one outright for $35. That’s still double the street price.
But hey, if the convenience is worth that to you, go ahead and overpay.
It’s a little different with the alarm buttons and extra pendants. Usually you can order extra wrist or necklace panic buttons, or stationary ones that you stick to the wall in the bathroom. Some companies sell them for a flat fee; others charge by the month. You’re a little more stuck this time, because you can’t get these items at your local hardware store.
So just make sure you add up the total cost and understand exactly what you’re paying for these extras.
You might be able to bargain to get the price of these extras reduced.
Dirty Trick #3: Psychological manipulation by salespeople
Medical alert salespeople can be a hard bunch. Some companies are looking for people who will put the customer’s needs first. Others just want fast-talking telemarketers who will close deals, whatever it takes.
A favorite tactic they use is to ask you questions about the person you’re trying to help. Their goal is to get you to reveal what you’re worried about. Once you’ve given them details about what concerns you, it’s easier for them to push you into buying a system right there and then. Why? Because if you don’t make a decision they’ll tell you – nicely or otherwise – that you’re letting down someone you love by not protecting them. Basically they’ve gotten you to reveal a weakness and now they are taking advantage of it.
What’s interesting is how hard it is to avoid this tactic. I’ve called a lot of these companies to get more information about their products. In some cases they refused to talk to me until I described my situation, even though I just had technical questions about the product.
So before you pick up the phone, prepare yourself to be manipulated. And just remember that sometimes the sales agents you talk to on the phone are paid according to how many sales they make, not how well they help you.
That’s an argument in favor of doing your research online (like you’re doing now), and buying the system that’s right for you without going through those difficult sales conversations.
FOURTH: Mistakes people make when shopping for a medical alert
Mistake #1: Not asking the person you’re buying it for if they want it
Remember how I told you up above to stop looking at medical alert websites for a while?
I hope this page has helped take away some of the confusion you were feeling. And there’s another reason for this advice.
That’s because one of the most important issues in buying a medical alert happens long before you start picking a system. Or it should. Too often I see people skipping this step. Their relationship with their loved one suffers, and the medical alert system sometimes ends up being a waste of money.
This is that four word question I referred to at the top of the letter. The one you must ask.
“Do you want it?”
It’s simple enough. You have to have a conversation with the person you’re buying the medical alert for.
You have to find out if they’re really interested.
Sometimes this conversation is easy. A lot of times it’s hard.
Because it’s not like you’re buying something delightful, like a bigger television set.
No, you’re buying something they will have to think about and take care of. And it’s also something that slaps them in the face with their mortality and physical decline.
A medical alert system says: “You’re old and you can’t take care of yourself anymore.”
No one wants to hear that. Even if you think they already recognize this truth, a medical alert is a glaring reminder.
So you must have this conversation first. You have to see if they are on board. And if they’re not, you want to figure out if you can get them not just to agree, but to see the benefits and to want a system for themselves.
Because if they don’t, they won’t use it. It’s that simple.
Mistake #2: Not understanding the refund policy
The refund policy is one of the most important things you have to understand. By refund policy I’m referring both to the money back guarantee, if available, and to the procedure that happens when you need to cancel service.
Some companies offer a money back guarantee. Some don’t. If the guarantee is important to you, make sure you understand whether or not it’s offered, and what it covers.
The absence of a money back guarantee doesn’t automatically make a company a bad choice.
On my review pages for individual systems I specify whether or not the company has a money back guarantee policy, but I don’t go into great detail on it. You’ll want to find out for yourself if return shipping is covered (not usually) or if you’ll be billed for any “free” outbound shipping (often).
The more important consideration is the cancellation policy.
You WILL cancel your service on this product. It might be because the person using it dies. Or because they move into a nursing home. Or because something better comes along.
So it’s very important to understand how this works.
1. Long-term contract. If you sign a long term contract you will be bound by the terms of that contract, which might specify that you can only cancel under certain conditions, such as the death of the user. It’s important to understand that many age-related transitions can make a medical alert less relevant, not just death. Tread very carefully. (In fact, I don’t recommend signing a long-term contract for medical alarm monitoring.)
2. Pre-paid months. Many companies offer you a discount if you prepay for 3, 6, or 12 months. Some companies will refund any pre-paid months after you return the equipment. Others will not. Some require an initial 3-month commitment, but will refund prepaid months after that. I specify the cancellation policy on each product review page. I do not recommend buying long pre-paid terms from companies that do not refund your unused months. If you pay $350 for a year just before the person dies, you’ll regret that choice. If you are only saving $5/mo, this is a lot of money to put at risk.
3. Month to month. You can cancel anytime. Sometimes companies ask for 30-days notice, which means that you might be charged one more time after you return the equipment.
Equipment charges can be an issue, too. When you get a medical alarm system you are usually just leasing the equipment. You’re responsible for returning it in good shape. Keep the original packaging and all parts. Some companies charge up to $400 for damaged equipment (even though the wholesale cost of these things is probably closer to $60).
Mistake #3: Not reading the small print.
No matter what a salesperson says (or even what I say), the true contract you are making with a medical alarm company is in the terms of service and the monitoring contract you sign.
Many people have been tricked into a 3-year contract by not reading the fine print. Others have taken the salesperson’s word for something that is contradicted by the contract or the terms of service.
No one likes reading these things, but you can save yourself a lot of trouble by doing so.
Mistake #4: Not testing the system when you get it, and regularly after that.
With most medical alerts, part of the setup process is to use the device to place a test call to the monitoring center. Often this call includes a conversation where you give details of your health history that might help save your life in an emergency, and where you tell the monitoring company how emergency responders can get access to your property.
So far so good. But you also want to test the unit in the places where you usually spend time. This is as easy as activating the system, telling the monitoring center you will be testing the system all around your house, and then going and doing it.
Try it from the chair where you watch TV. Do it with the volume as high as you usually have it, and as if you can’t reach the remote to turn it down. Can you still communicate?
Try it from the bathroom. Try it with the water running.
Try it outside your house, in the different areas where you think you’ll spend time or where your risk of falling is highest.
Please don’t think this is an inconvenience to the monitoring center. This is exactly what you’re paying them for. Yes, you might feel a little silly with all these calls in a short time, but it’s so much better than thinking you’re covered when you’re not.
FIFTH: Special cases
#1: Memory issues
Medical alerts can be tricky for people with significant memory issues. If you’re looking for a system for someone with Alzheimer’s or other cognitive problems, please speak with the professionals who are helping you. They’ll know more about how to handle this. In any case, you’ll want a system that uses a simple wrist-style button.
#2: Hearing issues
Again, speak to a professional about this. Medical alerts rely on voice communication, though they work even if there is no communications. But with a deaf person there could be a lot more false alarms. Hearing professionals will probably have specific suggestions that are better than mine.
#3: Vision issues
Vision problems shouldn’t be an issue for use of a medical alert, once it’s set up.
Choose your system
Now you’re ready to take the next step and choose your system.
If you’re homebound, you’ll want to look at one of the standard medical alert systems with their base station speakerphones and their wrist or neck pendants that never need to be recharged.
If you’re highly active, you’ll want to investigate a mobile medical alert that will give you protection at home, around the house, and around the country.
And if you’re somewhere in the middle, you’ll want to check out the hybrid home and mobile medical alert systems that will give you both “set it and forget it” protection at home and sophisticated mobile/GPS protection when you are away from home.
If you’ve decided you can’t afford ongoing monitoring fees, please see my detailed discussion of no-fee medical alert systems. (Just remember I’m going to keep trying to talk you out of them.)
Before you go, there’s one more thing I want to discuss.
It’s the one thing I think Consumer Reports gets wrong. Now, I don’t say this lightly, because I grew up reading Consumer Reports, have consulted it for every car I’ve purchased, and often rely on its reviews….
But the Consumer Reports review of medical alarms puts too much emphasis, in my opinion, on the issue of a company owning and running its own monitoring center.
I don’t think it makes a huge difference whether the monitoring center is owned by the company or is contracted out.
Now, all things being equal, I would choose one that is owned and run by the company.
But all things are NOT usually equal. Some of the most egregious anti-consumer companies, ones that appear to actively seek to take advantage of vulnerable seniors, run their own monitoring centers.
And some smaller companies that have made a commitment to sell only modern, top-quality equipment with customer-friendly policies and excellent support simply aren’t big enough to support their own monitoring center.
In these cases, they contract with established monitoring centers to have calls answered by them, following rules they set forth.
It’s certainly reasonable to ask questions about who owns the monitoring center and how the company assures the quality of response.
But I don’t think you should use it as a screen to dismiss otherwise good companies.
In any case, I specify on each review page whether the monitoring center is owned by the company, if I was able to find that out.
Avoiding medical alert scams
Above I promised you two hints about avoiding medical alert scams.
They’re simple, and they work for all kinds of other scams that target seniors.
1. Do not talk to telemarketers who call you on the phone.
2. Never buy anything over the phone if you did not initiate the call.
These two simple rules will save you a lot of heartache.
Why do they work? Because they’re simple. If a telemarketer calls you on the phone, you don’t have to talk to them. You can simply hang up. If you’d like, you can be polite about it. I usually say, “I do not respond to telephone solicitations. Good luck with your calls. Goodnight.” And then I hang up the phone. This works for charities as well as people trying to sell me goods and services.
If someone is spending the money to hire someone to make cold calls to consumers, you can be assured that whatever they are selling is NOT a good deal. If it was a good deal, they wouldn’t have all the extra cash to hire people to call you. So just hang up.
If everyone lived with these two rules, especially as they got older, a lot of scammers would have (deservedly) harder lives.
Now that you’ve gotten to the very bottom of this page, please make a choice to learn more about