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The Best Medical Alert Systems of 2017

A personal emergency response system can give you peace of mind knowing help is only a button-press away. Here’s everything you need to know to find the right one for yourself or an elderly family member.

What Is a Medical Alert System?

Medical alert systems, also known as personal emergency response systems, offer a fast and easy way for the elderly, people with health issues, and those who live alone, to get help during an emergency, whether it be a medical issue, a fall, a fire, or any event that requires an immediate response. In a nutshell, these systems contain a help button that dials up an emergency response center and connects you to a live agent. The most basic systems use a landline and consist of a base unit and a portable help button you can wear around the house, but there are cellular options and GPS-based mobile solutions for people on the go, as well as options that automatically send an alarm when a fall is detected. Some services will even call you to remind you to take your medications. Read on to see what kinds of medical alert systems are available, and how much you can expect to pay for the service.

What Equipment Is Required?

The most basic medical alert systems use a landline telephone connection and consist of a base unit and a portable help button. They are incredibly easy to install; simply plug the unit into your phone jack using the included phone cord, and plug your phone into the secondary jack on the unit. Plug in the power cord and wait a few seconds while the system starts up, and when the LED indicator turns green, you are good to go. It’s a good idea (and encouraged by providers) to run a test by pressing the help button on the base unit to make sure everything is working. When you are connected to an agent, simply tell him/her that you are conducting a test. They will verify your name and make sure everything is OK.

The base unit looks somewhat like a speakerphone and actually pulls double duty as one, but its main purpose is to connect you to a live emergency response agent without having to pick up a phone. It has a clearly marked help or emergency button, which is usually (but not always) colored red and is the largest, most easy-to-reach button on the unit. It also has a speaker and an embedded microphone for two-way hands-free communication, an LED status indicator, and a reset button that can provide several functions depending on the system.

On some systems pressing the reset button will completely cancel the call to the response center, while on other systems it will silence the beeping alarm but won’t cancel the call, which means you’ll still have to speak to an agent to tell them that everything is OK. It may also be used by emergency responders to let the response center know that help has arrived. Make sure your base unit has a built-in battery backup that will allow it to operate in the event of a power outage.

If you don’t have a landline or simply don’t want to use it for a medical alert system, you can order a base unit with built-in cellular circuitry, but subscriptions for these systems typically cost more than landline systems. You don’t have to subscribe to a cellular service provider, as that cost that is built into your subscription and handled by the medical alert service provider. As with landline systems, cellular systems are very easy to install; just plug them in, wait for the LED light to glow green, and test out the system as mentioned above.

The portable help button can be worn as a pendant necklace or on your wrist like a watch. It is designed for use inside and around the home, although there are mobile buttons with embedded GPS technology available that you can travel with. If you are in the house or in your backyard and need assistance, just press the pendant/wrist band button to initiate a call to the response center. If you can’t get close enough to the base unit to respond to the agent, the agent will try calling people on your contact list before calling 911.

Portable help buttons are almost always waterproof and can be worn in the shower, and they can communicate with the base unit at distances up to 1,500 feet. You should test your help pendant by pressing the button from various locations in your house and yard so you’ll know what kind of range to expect.

A fall-detection pendant does everything that a regular help button pendant does, but has built-in sensors that can detect if you’ve taken a spill, at which point it will initiate a call to the response center. They usually require an additional monthly fee.

In-home systems are ideal for people who rarely leave the house, but if you maintain an active lifestyle, consider a mobile medical alert system. Mobile systems go with you when you leave the house, and use GPS technology to pinpoint your exact location and cellular technology to connect you to a response center. They are usually a bit larger and heavier than a standard portable help button, but are still small enough to be worn comfortably as a pendant. They contain a help button that initiates a call to the response center, and a speaker and microphone for two-way communication. Mobile pendants are powered by rechargeable batteries and can be ordered with a fall-detection sensor for an additional monthly fee.

How Medical Alert Systems Work

To call for help, simply press the help button on the base unit or your wearable device. The base unit will automatically dial up the response center associated with your medical alert service provider, at which point you’ll hear a series of loud beeps while the unit attempts to connect with the response center. After around 20 to 40 seconds, a live agent will answer the call and ask if everything is alright. The base unit acts as a hands-free speakerphone so all you have to do is tell the agent what your situation is and request help, or let them know that you are just testing your system or pressed a button by mistake.

If you request help, the agent will call 911 and have an emergency responder dispatched to your address. If you are unable to answer, the agent will begin calling the numbers on your contact list, which is usually filled out on a mail-in form or online. If the agent can’t reach anybody on the list, they will then contact 911. Many services request that you include medical information when you fill out the initial contact form, including things like existing conditions, medications, physician contacts, and allergies. This information goes into your personal database and is relayed to emergency responders.

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