Many older adults and their families find security and peace of mind by adding a medical alert system to their safety net. The basic idea is that if you are ill, injured, lost, or disoriented, you simply have to push the button on a transmitter device that you wear or carry with you at all times.  The person receiving the transmission can then call emergency responders, a neighbor, or family member to come to your assistance.  Many people supplement this system by putting a lockbox on their front door containing a house key.  The person receiving the emergency transmission can then provide the lockbox code to the responder, avoiding the need to waste valuable time trying to get to the ill or injured person or having to break a lock or window to gain entry.

Medical alert systems typically consist of a receiver or base station which allows a central monitoring station to communicate with the client and a waterproof transmitter (typically on a wrist band or necklace) which allows the client to communicate with the monitoring station.  The central station then maintains a call list indicating who should be called in the event of an emergency and in what order.  Such systems are typically available for a monthly or annual rental fee or as a one-time purchase.  Another choice is the “no fee” alert system which you can set up to call your friends or family instead of a monitoring service, thus avoiding the cost of monitoring. Some of the newest technology incorporates monitoring sensors that tell the central station whether the client has deviated from his or her normal schedule or forgotten to take medications that are stored in a special medication management container.

Some medical alert systems work only within a set distance of the base station (receiver) which is usually connected to a home’s telephone land line.  This means that the system will work within the home and sometimes for a short distance outside, such as to the end of a driveway where the mailbox is located.  Many newer systems work anywhere in the world through GPS technology and do not require a landline.  Some systems are hybrid or dual systems, and work via a base station in your home and via a portable unit that you carry with you when you are out.  So, the first choice you need to make is whether to obtain a home-based system or one that works wherever life takes you.

When selecting a medical alert system, be sure that you understand both the technology and the terms of the contract or service agreement.  Also, be sure to compare carefully.  For example, some systems come with only one transmitter while others provide a second one at no extra cost.  Some provide assistance with setting up the system while others expect you to do it yourself.  Finally, some providers include back up batteries for the parts of their system that require electricity to operate and others do not.

The most frequent objection that I hear from my clients regarding acquiring a medical alert system is, “I carry a cell phone.  What do I need that for?”  As I explain, a cell phone is terrific until it’s not.  For example, if you have fallen and hit your head and are knocked out, you won’t be able to dial your phone.  If you are confused or disoriented you might not remember the password on your phone or what number to dial in an emergency.  What about if the person you called doesn’t answer?  And finally, do you take your cell phone into the shower with you?  The big advantage of a purpose built medical alert system is that it is designed to be with you all the time, 24 hours a day.  That brings me to perhaps the most important point at all:  your alert system only works if you remember to have the transmitter on your person all the time.  I can’t tell you how many times I walk into a client’s home and see the neck pendant on the bedside table or the kitchen counter.  It won’t do you any good at all in those locations!