A fall detection sensor can be an important part of a medical alert system, either as a pendant or an activated feature on a mobile device. These devices have developed quickly in recent years, and are becoming fairly reliable today, although they’re still not perfect. While these fall detection sensors aren’t a standalone item, they can make a real difference to the overall quality and value of your life alert system.
With this in mind, you should choose one of the best medical alert systems before you decide whether to add a fall detection sensor. We tested the call response times, the quality of the call centers, and speaker clarity for the medical alert systems associated with each sensor, as well as the dependability of the accelerometer-based fall detection sensors themselves.
After thorough testing of each fall detection sensor, and comparing costs with the performance, the GreatCall Mobile Lively earned our pick for the best fall detection sensor overall because this service provides the best medical alert system combined with the best fall detection performance. We found the best value comes with the Medical Alert package, and the Best Emergency Response Center is offered by Medical Guardian.
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Good-performing, affordable and offering good customer service, GreatCall earns our top spot here.
Offering good service, if a too-sensitive fall detection pendant, Medical Alert is among the cheapest options available.
Medical Guardian offers the best emergency response center of all the ones we tested.
Best fall detection sensor
GreatCall's Lively Mobile performed the best in our fall detection tests. For the extra $15 a month the fall detection sensor costs, it is a bit on the sensitive side, which is still better than not being sensitive enough.
It doesn't take much of a bump to the device to cause it to detect a fall, but it's not nearly as over-sensitive as some other sensors. In addition, there were some simulated falls where the sensitivity was lacking, perhaps due to a low battery.
Still, the fall detection was closer to the sweet spot than other sensors we tested. The Lively Mobile starts out at about $25 per month, making it one of the most affordable medical alert systems, but to activate the fall detection, you must upgrade to the Ultimate package. This increases the monthly cost to $40 per month.
However, this package still offers excellent value beyond the fall detection feature. It includes compatibility with the caretaker tracking app, mobile urgent care service that provides 24/7 access to nurses and doctors for minor health issues and product replacement if the Lively Mobile is damaged or stops working.
In our main review of medical alert systems, GreatCall also earned my pick for the best medical alert system overall because it performed the best in all the important areas.
The call response time was twice as fast as the second fastest medical alert services. From the moment we pressed the help button to the moment the emergency responder asked if we needed help was an average of 14 seconds.
In addition, while the emergency responder service experience was average, the speaker quality is unmatched by other mobile systems, making communication easier.
It's also one of the most affordable medical alert systems, with the mobile plan costing less per month than most services’ in-home landline systems, which are outdated and can be severely limiting.
Medical Alert is our pick for the best value because it has the cheapest medical alert system on the market.
When you add the fall detection, it costs just $30 per month. By comparison, most services cost $40 for the same in-home landline system with fall detection. The good news with Medical Alert's fall detection pendant is it detected every simulated fall.
If you're extremely concerned about your loved one falling and being unable to press the help button, then this medical alert add-on is worth the additional $10 per month.
The bad news is the oversensitivity. Throughout our testing, it detected falls while gently swinging the pendant in the tester’s hand, while placing it on the table and while walking a little too briskly while it was around his neck. It detected falls when dropped from a height of just 3 inches.
With such a sensitive sensor, it's easy to imagine the false alerts becoming more of a nuisance than a safety net to your loved one. And you have to consider the chance it could detect a fall when your loved one is too far from the base unit to hear it call for help. If they’re unable to tell the emergency responder of the false alert, an ambulance is sent to their home.
The sensitive fall detection pendant aside, Medical Alert's overall performance as a medical alert service was excellent. The call response time averaged under 30 seconds and the emergency responders were good. In addition, the mobile system is among the best mobile alert systems we tested.
Best Emergency Response Center
While Medical Guardian's fall detection pendant didn’t match the best sensors on the market, the emergency responders were excellent, receiving the highest grade for quality in our test.
Calling an emergency response center, even in an emergency, is a high anxiety situation. Studies even suggest seniors often won't push the help button as a result. But the emergency responders with Medical Guardian do an excellent job at easing this anxiety.
They speak clearly with a calm and patient tone. They never seemed annoyed when we told them we were just testing the device, or accidentally activated the fall detection. On every call, they asked at least twice if our tester was okay and always reminded us to press the button if we need help.
This goes a long way towards keeping your loved one calm while also alleviating any future anxiety they may have at calling for help. The fall detection received a C grade in our test. It detected about 10 per cent of the falls. But, at least it detected something.
Many of the fall detection pendants we tested only detected falls when our tester spiked them on the ground like a football. In addition, it's not overly sensitive to the point where it calls for help at the slightest bump. If having some fall detection protection provides peace of mind, the additional $10 per month is worth it.
On a positive note, the fall detection pendant's quality, lanyard quality and style are far superior to the standard pendants included with the landline system. This could make the additional cost worth it on those characteristics alone.
Medical Guardian also performed well in the other tests we performed for medical alerts. The average call response time was under 30 seconds and tied for the second fastest. In addition, both the mobile system and the in-home systems have above-average speakers.
Finally, Medical Guardian is one of only a few medical alert services to offer a medical alert smartwatch, the Freedom Guardian. This is a smartwatch, fitness tracker and medical alert all rolled into one. It's perfect for your technologically adept loved one, especially since it doesn’t look or feel like a medical alert device, so they are more likely to wear and use it.
Best Pendant Performance
Fall detection sensors come in two forms – as a feature on a mobile medical alert device or a pendant with an in-home system. In our tests, BlueStar SeniorTech had the best fall detection pendant.
It wasn't perfect by any means, but it was closest to finding the sweet spot between being too sensitive and outright failing to detect anything. It detected 80 per cent of the simulated falls, but it also detected about 60 per cent of the drops from three inches, a test designed to gauge the sensitivity. In addition, it only detected one fall while gently swinging the pendant in the tester’s hand. It may seem like its overly sensitive, and it is on the sensitive side of the spectrum, but compared to some pendants and mobile devices we tested, the risk of too many false alerts is much lower here than for many competitors.
As a medical alert service, however, the emergency response speed was poor. It was the slowest service in our tests. On average, the calls for help went unanswered for over 91 seconds. Several calls even went unanswered for over five minutes.
To make matters worse, the mobile device – the SOS Ranger – does nothing to indicate a call is in progress. The device is silent until someone answers. This can amplify the user’s anxiety, as they can’t be sure it had called or if the call was dropped. In a real emergency, this would be a major concern.
Best Fall Detection Alert
When Acadian OnCall's mobile device detects a fall, a voice says "Fall Detected. Calling for help." After testing so many fall detection devices, it's clear how important this notification is for alleviating anxiety and for helping the senior recognize false alerts early.
The voice goes a long way to helping minimize anxiety because you know help is coming. And it repeats until someone answers, so you're never left wondering if the call was dropped or not.
Fortunately, you don't have to worry about dropped calls or short call response times, as Acadian OnCall's call response time averaged under 30 seconds. The fall detection performance earned a B grade.
It's not as sensitive as most sensors on one end of the spectrum but it's also not sensitive enough on the other end, detecting only about 30 percent of the simulated falls. However, it never detected any falls in the sensitivity tests where our tester dropped it from three inches or swung it gently. So it's not likely to cause false alerts, but it's also less likely to detect a real fall.
How do Fall Detection Sensors work?
Fall detection sensors work by using an accelerometer and a gyroscope to measure the sudden G-Force shifts experienced in a fall. When a fall is detected, it automatically activates a call for help from your medical alert system. It’s ideal for situations where you may not be conscious when you’ve fallen or too injured by the fall to press the help button, such as a stroke, heart attack, fainting or other condition.
A medical alert system is a safety net for your senior loved one. As long as they’re wearing the medical alert system, they can get help when they need, and this allows them to stay at home longer and have greater independence. But how do fall detection sensors play into these systems?
For starters, there are two kinds of medical alert systems: an in-home system and a mobile system. The former is a pendant and base-unit system that only works in the home while the latter goes wherever you go. In both cases, however, the purpose is the same – you press a button and it calls an emergency call center so you can receive help. However, in almost every case, the fall detection sensor is an optional add-on.
How much do Fall Detection sensors cost?
Fall detection sensors aren't purchased as an individual product. These are add-on options to a medical alert system. On average, a fall detection pendant costs between $10 and $15 per month, though some services offer the option as low as $5 per month. The same price differential applies to mobile systems with fall detection, as these systems are about $10 to $15 per month more than the same device without the sensor activated.
Are Fall Detection Sensors Worth the Extra Cost?
At $10 per month for a fall detection add-on, you're looking at an additional expense of $120 per year on top of your medical alert system costs. It's a significant expense, especially if your loved one lives on a strict budget. In addition, the technology is very inconsistent. This expense likely means either having a sensitive sensor that causes so many false alerts, your loved one eventually stops wearing it or a sensor that doesn't detect falls at all.
To put it simply - you shouldn't buy a medical alert system based on the compatible the fall detection sensor. Rather, you should base your purchase decision based on the quality of the medical alert system and the service, only adding fall detection to the system if the peace of mind of the added protection is worth the additional cost. For many, the peace of mind is invaluable, especially when you consider the following statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
- One in three seniors over 65 experiences a fall and this risk increases with age
- One in five falls result in a serious injury requiring hospitalization
- A senior is treated for a fall in an emergency room every 11 seconds
- The most common injuries are traumatic brain injuries and fractured hips
- Falls are the primary reason most seniors lose their independence and become inactive
- Falls are the leading cause of death in Americans over 65
- Fall detection sensors aren't perfect, but the technology is still relatively new and it's getting better
How Did We Test Fall Detection Sensors?
For three weeks, our expert tester, Jeph Preece, thoroughly tested all aspects of the best medical alert services – the call response time, quality of emergency responders, speaker quality and volume output and more.
Every fall detection sensor relies on an accelerometer to measure gravitational force. When you fall, the g-force accelerates until you hit the ground. By using carefully tuned algorithms to account for the expected g-forces experienced in a fall, the fall detection sensor is designed to differentiate between a fall and accidentally being bumped into the refrigerator door. This is the sweet-spot – the point at which a fall detection sensor accurately detects falls but doesn't cause false alerts for all the little bumps and movements it inevitably experiences in day-to-day activities.
To find the sweet spot, our tester made sure to wear the fall detection sensor as described in the instructions provided. Typically, this meant right over the heart or just above the heart and over the clothing. Then he fell from various angles onto a mattress – face first, backwards, sideways and more. He simulated falls where he tried catching myself, falls where he rolled a little after hitting the ground and falls from a seated position onto a hard floor. Many sensors detected every fall. This was very encouraging. Many others failed to detect anything.
To gauge the sensitivity of the sensors, he dropped the sensors from various heights, starting from four feet and ending at 3 inches. He also swung the devices gently in his hand. Only the most sensitive sensors detected falls in this test. In addition, throughout testing, he noted every time a pendant or mobile device accidentally detected a fall while testing other things and while moving around equipment. These false alerts happened often. In a few instances, one of the mobile device's fall detection was so sensitive, it detected falls while resting in the charging cradle on the table.
On the other side of the spectrum, four of the ten services had fall detection sensors with failing grades. Our tester rarely gives failing grades to products he tests, but these sensors detected none of the falls. In fact, he was convinced the sensors were defective, though it seems strange for so many services to send defective devices. However, he eventually tried to see if they'd detect a fall if he threw them into the ground as hard as he could. Finally, they worked, but only when he spiked them like a football.
The 10 dangers of living alone
According to the Administration on Aging, about 13.8 million people over 65 years old live on their own. This represents about 28 percent of the senior population. While ageing in place is a positive indicator of a high quality of life, living alone has some very specific dangers to consider:
- Social Isolation: Social isolation doesn’t just affect your mental health – it also increases your risk of heart disease, infectious illness, cognitive deterioration and high blood pressure.
- Greater Chance of Depression: Depression presents itself as a general loss of interest, concentration, energy, appetite and motivation. People can suffer from clinical depression for a long time without realizing it.
- Higher Rate of Anxiety: Anxiety expresses itself physically with insomnia, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, dry mouth, nausea, dizziness, muscle tension, and numbness in the hands and feet. Anxiety is often the result of feeling unsafe, which is magnified when you live in social isolation.
- More Likely to Be Poor: Elderly people who live alone are far more likely to be live below the poverty level and struggle with paying bills.
- Lack of Help in an Emergency: Seniors are at a high risk of falling and sustaining serious injuries. Without a medical alert system, you don’t have a safety net for help.
- Greater Risk of Fall Hazards: When you live alone, you don’t have an extra pair of eyes ensuring your home is free from tripping hazards.
- Greater Risk of Accidental Overdoses: When you combine higher likelihood of prescription drug use and a faltering memory, accidental overdoses among seniors living alone are not uncommon.
- Higher Rate of Malnutrition: Your risk of malnutrition is higher when you live alone for a variety of reasons ranging from dietary ignorance to depression.
- Unable to Maintain Basic Housekeeping: Often, your house is too big for you to keep up with basic housekeeping.
- Greater Chance of Missing Symptoms: When you live with someone, they can see things you can’t. They provide an external perspective on your well-being. You might display symptoms of illnesses and diseases you either never notice or choose to ignore on your own.
The Reality of Fall Injuries for the Elderly
According to “Falls in the Elderly,” published by the AAFP, falls are the main reason seniors visit the emergency room and are responsible for 70 percent of accidental deaths in people over 75 years old. In addition, falls are often symptomatic of greater medical issues. In essence, a fall experienced after 65 years old is serious. The AAFP argues that “elderly persons who fall are 10 times more likely to be hospitalized and eight times more likely to die as a result of the fall.”
Below are the common injuries to look out for and reasons to consider a fall detection sensor:
- Hip Fractures: A hip fracture is the most serious injury from a fall. This is because the femur, the long leg bone that moves within the hip socket, is among the strongest and most difficult bones to break. This means it's also one of the most difficult bones to heal, especially for anyone over the age of 65. However, a fractured hip is often far more serious than other fractured bones because the fractures occur within a joint and can include ligament damage. The resulting injury and difficult recovery often leads to a fast decline in overall health, a loss of independence and even death.
- Other Fractures: According to the Institute of Bone Health, only about 2 percent of fractures experienced in a fall are hips. In fact, 8.9 million fractures are the result of age-related osteoporosis. One in three women and one in five men over 50 experience these kinds of fractures in a fall, with the most resulting in forearm and vertebrae fractures.
- Brain Injuries: JAMA Neurology and UC San Franscisco studied 164,661 older patients treated in California's emergency rooms and inpatient visits. They found that 66 percent had suffered concussions due to falls, and this increased their chance of dementia by 26 percent. In addition, the study found traumatic brain injuries seem to increase the aging process in the brain. Of the seniors with a moderate to severe brain injury sustained in a fall, 20 percent died within two to five years.
- Psychological Injuries: Perhaps the most dangerous injury, the psychological impact of a fall can have much bigger implications for seniors. They are more likely to become more cautious and less active, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The fear of sustaining another fall often leads to isolation, depression and loneliness, which actually doubles the chances of a second fall.
Fall prevention tips for caregivers
In “Fall Prevention Conversation Guide for Caregivers” published by the National Council of Aging, falls in seniors impacts caretakers almost as much as it does for seniors because it requires increased financial burden, support requirements and even increase your risk of depression and anxiety. As a caretaker, there are steps you can take to also help your senior loved one from falling.
- Be mindful of medications and side effects: People over 65 that take four or more medications are at a high risk for falling. As we’ve already discussed, medications can affect vision, balance and cognitive responses. Because of this, it’s critical that you know exactly what your elderly loved ones takes and how it affects them, especially when they are prescribed new medications.
- Promote a healthy and active lifestyle: Your elderly loved ones are more likely to maintain a balanced diet and stay active if you encourage them. This can be as simple as taking them for a walk around the neighborhood. You should also consider sitting down with their primary caretaker to discuss appropriate exercises.
- Ensure use of proper footwear: Remove floppy slippers and any shoes with slick soles from their wardrobes. Don’t allow improper footwear to be an option. Encourage them not to walk around in bare feet or socks. Look for shoes with a low heel with a tapered, slip-resistant sole and good ankle support.
- Home modification: Make sure walkways are clear. Ensure power cords for lamps, phones and other electronic devices are tucked away. Keep regularly used items within easy reach. Install non-slip mats and handrails in the bathtub or shower.
- Encourage use of assistive devices: There are many assistive devices available to help elderly people – canes, walkers, wheelchairs, power scooters and even recliners that tilt forward to help them out of the chair.
- Visit a falls clinic: Visit a falls clinic to evaluate the risk factors for your loved one. These clinics can assess balance, mobility, muscle strength, reaction time and ability to use walking aids. Using information gleaned from the assessment, the clinics can create a customized exercise program to address the risks.
Apple Watch 4 Includes a Fall Detection Sensor
In September 2018, Apple announced the launch of the fourth edition of the Apple Watch. The news caught our attention because one of the major parts of the announcement was the Watch would include fall detection.
We ordered the smartwatch as soon as it was available, and I tested the fall detection sensor over the course of a week. And while the technology is really no different from other fall detection sensors, as it relies on an accelerometer and gyroscope to detect g-forces and movement, this smartwatch is the most effective fall detection sensor available right now. The reason has everything to do with the processes and stages of the detection that minimize, if not eliminate, fall alerts while still effectively detecting falls.
Here’s how it works:
- Delayed Response: It only detects falls when the person falls and doesn’t move, indicating a real emergency rather than instances where you’ve bumped into something or stumbled. This eliminates most false alerts and it works very well.
- Canceling Feature: If the watch detects a fall, it gives you an opportunity to cancel the call before calling 911.
- Alarm: If you don’t cancel the fall detection, an alarm from the watch sounds, alerting anyone in your vicinity to your situation.
- Calls 911 Directly: By calling 911 directly, you can get help faster because the emergency isn’t routed through an emergency call center. In addition, the Emergency SOS app sends your vital medical information and GPS location to responders.
Apple Watch 4: A Lifesaver
In addition to the fall detection sensor, the Apple Watch 4 is also outfitted with an ECG sensor capable of reading your heart’s electrical patterns and alerting you to potentially serious conditions. When the features were announced in September 2018, Apple claimed the sensor could save lives by alerting people to heart issues. At the time, many people viewed the feature with excitement for the potential, but with a healthy degree of skepticism, in part because hospitals use expensive EKG machines to achieve the same purpose.
When we tested the Apple Watch 4 in late September, the app for the ECG sensor had yet to be released, so I wasn’t able to test it. The app was finally released on December 6, 2018, and by the next day, it may have already saved a life.
According to ABCNews, a 45-year-old man from Richmond, Virginia, was alerted to an irregular heartbeat shortly after the app was released. At first, he thought it was defective, so he turned it off. But when it repeatedly alerted him to the irregular heartbeat and after it failed to provide similar readings on his wife and daughter, he went to the hospital to get checked out and was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation – an irregular heartbeat caused by a weakening of the heart that can result in strokes and heart attacks if left untreated.
It’s situations like this that got people excited about the ECG sensor in the Apple Watch 4. While it’s certainly not a replacement for a proper diagnosis by a doctor, the sensor provides seniors with a tool for catching those early warnings of heart conditions so they can get help before the condition worsens. It’s simply another layer of protection added to the safety net of a medical alert system. And when you combine it with the watch’s excellent fall detection sensor, the Apple Watch 4 is an option worth considering for protecting your senior loved one.
Starting at about $400, the Apple Watch 4 is not cheap, but without a monthly subscription, the long-term costs are actually more affordable. Using a smartwatch is certainly not for everyone, but you can read in greater detail how the watch might be a great option for your loved one in our review of medical alert smartwatches.
New and Emerging Fall Detection Sensor Technology
Recently, Vayyar Imaging launched the Walabot HOME. This is the first fall detection sensor of its kind on the market, combining a smart home device with fall detection sensors. The Walabot attaches to your wall and uses active motion detectors with low radio frequencies similar to Wi-Fi to track your movements without using cameras. When the sensor detects a fall, the Walabot automatically calls for help.
Currently, the marketing focuses on its use in the bathroom where falls in the shower are common, but you can also easily move it to other rooms. That said, if you’re looking to cover your entire home, it could quickly become very costly.
We haven’t been able to test how well the Walabot HOME detects falls yet, and there are certainly some concerns. What is the range? How well does it detect falls through objects, such as a couch or kitchen island?
However, despite questions about performance, the Walabot HOME is an interesting new addition to the fall detection sensor market. Here are some highlights:
- Non-wearable technology: It doesn’t require your loved one to wear a pendant or mobile device.
- No monthly subscription: You don’t have to budget for a costly subscription, which can cost between $40 and $60 per month with a medical alert system.
- Calls emergency contact: Rather than call an emergency response center, it calls your emergency contact.
- Call cancelling option: If you can stand up within two minutes of falling, it automatically cancels the call.
Technology can help you live a more empowered life, which is why we have rounded up the best medical alert systems to help keep you safe, as well as the best GPS medical alert systems and the best medical alert bracelets. Monitoring your general health is important too, so we'd recommend taking home one of the best digital thermometers to monitor your temperature and help spot if you have a fever.