By Reviews.com; Fall 2016
Nearly 90 percent of seniors say they prefer to live in their own homes, and most expect to stay there. It’s called “aging in place” and put simply: no assisted living facilities. Family members want to respect these wishes, but the risks are real. According to the National Council on Aging, one in three adults age 65 and older experience a fall each year, let alone other emergencies. The best medical alert systems address these risks with reliable devices that can connect seniors with help, keeping them safely independent — and giving family members one less thing to worry about. Our top pick, Bay Alarm Medical, goes even further with attentive, personable service. In an emergency, we’d feel comfortable with a loved one in the company’s hands.
Bay Alarm Medical (Best Overall)
MobileHelp (Best Technology)
Medical Guardian(Best Response Time)
LifeCall popularized the personal emergency response system (PERS) with infomercials in the 1980s — “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” — and while the technology has come a long way, their core function hasn’t: Press a button and you’re in touch with someone who can send help.
How We Found the Best Medical Alert System in 2017
Three out of our four final contenders shared the exact same technology. Clockwise from the top left: Acadian On Call, MobileHelp, Medical Guardian, Bay Alarm Medical.
To find the best modern-day medical alert system, we spent over 100 hours talking with elder-care experts, digging into service agreements, and hand-testing the top contenders. We started our search by collecting 69 medical alert devices that run on cellular-enabled base stations and that connect you to an independent central monitoring center.
Not all PERS devices connect you directly with a monitoring system where employees are trained to assess what help to send. Some operate more like long-distance walkie-talkies that either connect you to your designated emergency contact or alert 911 automatically. Those medical alert systems are better suited for an extra layer of security when you’re walking through the office parking garage at night.
From there, we kept it simple: We didn’t review any premium add-on features. The technology advancement of PERS devices is incredible, but for this review we looked solely at their most basic function: press a button, get help. The caregiving experts we worked with suggested that simpler medical alert systems may be less flashy, but they’re the best place to start.
“If you’re buying one for the first time, it’s a good idea to keep it as simple as possible. If there are too many buttons or too many features, many seniors will say, ‘Forget it, are you kidding me? I can barely work two remote controls.’”
Here’s how we whittled it down from 69 contenders to our 2 top picks.
We made sure providers had nationwide coverage.
Some medical alert systems only offer service in regional areas or outside the U.S. Our top picks need to work where you are.
We cut any medical alert device that required a full home security system.
Many home-security companies offer PERS devices as add-ons to a larger suite of security offerings. With so many standalone services available, you don’t need to install an entire security system just to get access to one — that would be like buying a whole Swiss army knife just for the corkscrew.
An excellent purchasing process was a must.
On paper, most PERS companies offer similar products at a similar price point — customer service is what sets them apart. Some providers never returned our emails or phone calls. Others had websites with confusing terms of service or hid their fees behind asterisks. And while some seniors might feel more comfortable ordering over the phone, many medical alert customers are younger people shopping for their elders. Online ordering should be standard and simple.
We called LifeStation, one of the leading brands in the industry, to ask why you could only order its landline device online and not its cellular- or mobile-enabled devices. Unsurprisingly, its reps were after the hard sell, pitching different units and limited-time promotional offers. It wasn’t a particularly negative experience, but also not one we want to recommend.
We rated all our contenders on straightforward terms, upfront pricing, a helpful and informative website, and a seamless ordering process.
We ranked each service on its breadth of equipment.
Erickson says it’s a good idea to look at brands that can “progressively attend to needs as needs increase.” Companies that have landline, cellular, and mobile units got extra points. Technology like automatic fall detection has quickly become a standard safeguard; services that use it ranked higher. And, according to the CDC, the bathroom is the most dangerous room in the house for falls — so we made sure any medical alert systems we recommend have waterproof equipment.
A lot of seniors have a difficult time incorporating PERS devices into their lives. Dr. Kori Novak, a gerontologist and researcher at Oxford University, explains, “For patients with cognitive disorders, they may forget to put them on, or forget what they are for and thus not think it is important to wear them. Sometimes they get misplaced during cognitive decline or are just uncomfortable to wear. But the biggest complaint I hear from seniors is that they feel like only ‘sick’ or ‘old’ people need them.”
To that end, medical alert systems need to be easy to set up and just as easy to cancel if they don’t work out. We were critical of providers that lock you into contracts (most offer a month-to-month plan, and some even offer a free trial period) and dinged brands for activation, installation, cancellation, or equipment fees. In fact, since most PERS devices are extremely simple to set up — you just plug them in — we were disappointed if a system required a technician to install it at all.
Once we narrowed down our top providers, we ordered their cellular-based devices and tried them out. We placed five test calls to each monitoring center, noting how long it took to connect to a representative and their general manner: Did they mention our name? Were they helpful and pleasant?
We tested the range of the pendant from 2 feet, 50 feet, and 150 feet away from its base station to make sure representatives on the other line could hear us. We also tested the health of the backup battery — if there’s a power outage, the battery kicks in so your device still works.
Finally, we assessed the overall design of each device, making sure it was easy to understand and use.