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Best medical alert systems 2020: Keep seniors independent and safe

Best medical alert systems 2020: Keep seniors independent and safe
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

The best medical alert systems can help your loved ones maintain their independence while giving you the peace of mind in knowing that they will be safe and looked after should they have an accident. Medical alert systems are designed to help vulnerable people, such as the elderly and disabled, to get on with their lives without the need for constant hands-on care and supervision. 

While there are a lot of different medical alert systems out there, they all work in roughly the same way. The vulnerable person that you want to protect is provided with a wearable device with an alarm button that can be pressed if they have an accident or require assistance. These devices can be necklaces, watches, mobile phones or pendants - just something small and easily accessible that a person can easily reach if they need help. Some of these devices even have more advanced features like fall detection, which will automatically call for assistance if it detects that the person has fallen down.

There are also other added layers of security that these medical alerts systems can provide, such as buttons placed at ground level around the house in accident hotspots like the shower and kitchen.

When choosing a medical alert system, you should consider the needs of the person that will be its benefactor. Generally, medical alert systems can be split into two categories: in-home and mobile. In-home systems are cheaper and use a base station which connects to your telephone line or through a cellular connection. These stations typically have features like a loudspeaker that can be heard from anywhere in the house and there are often optional extras like emergency buttons which can be pressed in case of a fall.

The other type of medical alert system is a mobile system, which uses a cellular network and allows the user to leave their home while still being protected. These devices are usually more expensive than the in-home variety, but offer more freedom. These are typically the best medical alert systems for seniors who like to explore the great outdoors.

Which type of medical alert system you choose depends on the needs of the user. If the user is still relatively active and enjoys wandering around town or walking their dog, then a mobile system is definitely the way to go. More sedentary people, or vulnerable people who would only leave the house with supervision and company from a loved one or carer will be fine with an in-home system. Below are our choices for the best medical alert systems for every eventuality.

 Editor's note: Looking for a Medical Alert System? If you're looking for information to help you choose the one that's right for you, use the questionnaire below to provide you with information from a variety of vendors for free: 

Best for Activity Tracking: Medical Guardian 

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1. Medical Guardian: Best for activity tracking

(Image credit: Medical Guardian)

Medical Guardian

Extra peace of mind for when you need to know that a loved one is up and about

Free cancellation: N/A | System price (starts at): $0 | Monthly costs (starts at): $29.95 | In-home monitoring: Yes | GPS monitoring: Yes

Excellent range of hardware
Fast response time
Excellent call quality
Range varies by device

Medical Guardian has one of the biggest range of alert systems, covering both in-home and mobile on-the-go. However, it has one package that stands out from the crowd, Family Guardian.

As well as providing traditional in-home alert coverage via a cellular base station, Family Guardian also gets you two motion sensors and a door sensor. Via the app, you can get alerts about your loved one, including night wandering, if a door has a been left open, a fall, and low or high activity.

This package isn’t particularly cheap, but if you want to monitor a loved one in an unobtrusive way, this package lets you do that, letting you send for help if anything unusual goes on. There are cheaper systems (both in-home and mobile) but Medical Guardian sticks out if you need something a bit different.

2. Bay Alarm Medical: Best value in-home system

Bay Alarm Medical

(Image credit: Bay Alarm Medical)

Bay Alarm Medical

A great-value system that’s perfect for in-home

Free cancellation: 30 days | System price (starts at): $0 | Monthly costs (starts at): $19.95 | In-home monitoring: Yes | GPS monitoring: Yes

No up-front hardware costs
Well priced
Free spouse cover
Spouse hardware costs extra

With in-home packages starting at just $19.95 a month, Bay Alarm Medical is one of the best-value medical alert systems that you can buy, and this includes the basic hardware rental that you need. Additional help hardware, including wall-mounted buttons and additional wearable help pendants, can be added into the mix to make a house even safer.

The in-home package is well-rated across user review sites, with the quality of the monitoring center and the speed of response highlighted.

There’s also a GPS mobile option, although we didn’t find that part worked very well in our tests, so you may want to look at an alternative system if you want cellular coverage. It’s also worth looking into the extended warranty, as it can be expensive to replace lost or damaged hardware otherwise.

For quality in-home protection at a low price, Bay Alarm Medical is a great choice.

3. GreatCall: Best mobile system

GreatCall

(Image credit: GreatCall)

GreatCall

An excellent-value and well-performing mobile medical alert system

Free cancellation: 30 days | System price (starts at): $49.99 | Monthly costs (starts at): $14.99 | In-home monitoring: No | GPS monitoring: Yes

Excellent pricing
Fast response
All devices use a cellular connection
No in-home options

GreatCall is unique among medical alert system providers, as the company doesn’t have any in-home products, and focusses entirely on mobile systems. And, it’s not just traditional medical alert systems, as the company has a smartphone (Jitterbug Smart2), feature phone (Jitterbug Flip) and smartwatch (Lively Wearable).

The phones both have GreatCall built-in, with one-touch access to the helpline, while the Lively Wearable requires a paired smartphone to be in range to use its one-touch help button. While these products may be interesting to some, the LivelyMobile Plus is the best device for most people.

This wearable mobile device has a single button to call for help, is waterproof and can be upgraded to provide fall detection. With this device, protection starts at $24.99 a month, making this just about the best-value mobile alert system you can buy.

Excellent ratings for the Lively Mobile and the help service make the system an even better choice. If you’re after a mobile-only system, this is an excellent choice.

4. LifeFone: Best for peace of mind

LifeFone

(Image credit: LifeFone)

LifeFone

Extra personal services help you keep your peace of mind

Free cancellation: 30 days | System price (starts at): $0 | Monthly costs (starts at): $22.87 | In-home monitoring: Yes | GPS monitoring: Yes

Excellent range
Comprehensive peace-of-mind add-ons
Free spouse cover
Comparatively expensive

LifeFone offers a fairly basic set of packages that cover in-home and mobile. It’s not particularly cheap, with the in-home landline system costing $29.95 a month when paid monthly. So, why feature it in this list?

The answer lies in the extras, with LifeFone having a range of peace-of-mind options that can help you keep track of a loved one. The options include Activity Assurance, where the base station beeps to prompt the user to check in with the monitoring center; the Daily Check-in Call is more proactive with the monitoring center calling once a day to see, and following your alert plan if there’s no answer; and for some packages, there’s a medication reminder service.

Key to LifeFone’s success is its high user ratings, with most praising how reliable and fast the system is to respond to alerts. While you can buy cheaper packages, if you need a very reliable system with its peace-of-mind features, LifeFone is a great choice.

5. Medical Alert: Lowest cost alert system

Medical Alert

(Image credit: Medical Alert)

Medical Alert

Cutting out features and complexity, this is the cheapest system that we’ve reviewed

Free cancellation: N/A | System price (starts at): $0 | Monthly costs (starts at): $22.95 | In-home monitoring: Yes | GPS monitoring: Yes

Fast response times
High quality mobile speaker
Not many additional services
Expensive mobile service

If cost is one of your most important factors, such as if you want to add cover for a senior that’s very active and hasn’t suffered many issues, Medical Alert could be for you. You don’t get much in the way of extras, such as medicine reminders, but the company focuses on getting the basics of medical alert systems right.

The system has just three plans to choose from, covering in-home and mobile. The basic At Home Landline package costs just $22.95 on a monthly contract, although you can get the price down to just $18.29 a month if you pay annually.

Spouses are covered for free and Medical Alert often gives away two buttons with each package, so there’s no extra cost to pay. Excellent response times from the monitoring center, combined with high-scoring user reviews shows that this service may be cheap but it performs as well as systems that are far more expensive.

If you need plain and simple protection and want this at the cheapest price, Medical Alert is the system for you. If you need something a bit more complicated or additional peace-of-mind features look elsewhere.

6. MobileHelp: Best technology

MobileHelp

(Image credit: MobileHelp)

MobileHelp

The maker of a lot of medical alert hardware has its own unique range of alert devices and a quality service

Free cancellation: 30 days | System price (starts at): $0 | Monthly costs (starts at): $19.95 | In-home monitoring: Yes | GPS monitoring: Yes

Excellent choice of systems
Dual GPS mobile plan
Well priced
Fall Detection requires additional hardware

MobileHelp is one of the biggest names in medical alert systems, as it manufactures much of the hardware that other services use. Here, it has its own medical alert system, which has some of the best choices of hardware.

As well as the basic in-home and mobile offerings, Medical Alert has the expensive but impressive MobileHelp Touch touchscreen tablet, which lets you have video chats with a doctor, play memory-enhancing games and more. 

Then, there’s MobileHelp Smart, a Samsung-manufactured smartwatch with built-in cellular. This product doesn’t look like a medical alert device, so could be more likely to be worn by a senior that doesn’t want to stand out.

There are some excellent-value packages, too, including Mobile Duo, which gets you two mobile devices for two people, all for $44.95 a month: a bargain if you have two people to cover. Decent user reviews across the board help push this system.

As good as the hardware choice is with MobileHelp is, there are better-value packages elsewhere if you need more basic cover.

If you're looking for more buying guides, you might be interested in our lists of the best health insurance companies and best Medicare Part D plans. We've also reviewed and rated the best glucose meters and best walk-in tubs

How do medical alert devices work?

Medical alert systems are wearable devices that call for help at the press of a button. They provide seniors with a safety net, particularly when they live alone, allowing them to age in place longer. That said, there are two kinds of systems: in-home medical alert systems and mobile medical alert systems.

In-home systems

In-home medical alert systems consist of a base unit and a waterproof help button, with usually a choice between wrist or pendant options. The base unit is a specialized speakerphone with a loudspeaker and a sensitive microphone capable of picking up sounds from rooms away. It connects to a landline or cellular network, and when you need help, you press a button on the pendant and a wireless signal activates a call for help from the base unit to the medical alert service’s emergency response center. A trained operator then calmly assesses the emergency and determines whether to contact local emergency services to send help, although help is sent automatically if there’s no response.

These systems typically have wireless ranges between 300 and 1,500 feet from the base station. At the maximum ranges, it’s unlikely that a person could hear or communicate with the speakerphone, but help would be sent automatically. And, the extra range is important in a big home or those with thick walls.

In-home systems can often be personalized with the addition of extra wall-mounted help buttons that can be placed in areas where an accident is likely to happen, such as low-down in a hallway or in a bathroom. These help buttons provide additional care, even if a senior has forgotten to put on their regular help button.

Expect to pay between $20 and $30 a month for a system that connects to a landline, and between $30 and $45 a month for a system that uses a cellular connection.

Mobile medical alert systems

Mobile systems work in the same way as in-home systems – you press a button and it calls an emergency response center. However, these systems typically combine the base unit and the waterproof pendant into one wearable device you can take anywhere. By comparison, a mobile medical alert system is the safer option. Not only does it provide an unlimited range, but it also allows for far better communication with emergency responders, which is a critical part of a successful medical alert system.

Imagine this scenario – your loved one is in the garden and accidentally presses the button or activates a fall-detection sensor on the pendant. It calls for help, but she’s unlikely to realize it because she’s too far from the base unit to hear the operator. And if the operator can’t hear her, an ambulance is sent to her house.  

According to Scott Lepper, an EMT and CEO of RescueTouch, if this scenario happens, the EMTs are likely going to convince her to "take a bumpy ride to the emergency department even if they don't need to go." This is, as he suggests, the result of emergency protocols and liabilities. The entire event results in "unnecessary attention from neighbors, a night in the (emergency room) for mom, and hospital and ambulance bills.”

Some mobile medical alert systems can be docked at home, with the senior wearing a traditional help button. This is useful, as the mobile system can be put on charge and the senior is still covered; a system that requires the device to be removed for charging can lead to a situation where a call for help can’t be made.

Expect to pay between $35 and $60 a month on average for one of these systems.

Can I get spouse coverage?

Many in-home medical alert systems let you cover a spouse for no additional monthly fee, although it’s common that you have to pay for the additional help button required.

It’s trickier with mobile systems, as in most cases you’ll need to take out a second alert system package, tied to a separate device. If you have a mobile system that acts like a base station at home, working with wearable help buttons, just be aware that when the main mobile device is removed to go out with, anyone left at home won’t be able to use their help buttons.

Are medical alert systems covered by Medicare?

Unfortunately, while Medicare covers a lot of medical equipment prescribed by a doctor, medical alert systems aren’t covered by Medicare Part A or Part B. These plans cover hospital and health insurance, and they can cover medical equipment like oxygen concentrators, wheelchairs and walkers. But they don’t cover services, procedures or equipment deemed elective by a physician. And medical alert services fall under this elective service and equipment.

However, according to Medicare.com, a Medicare Part C Advantage plan might be an option for medical alert system coverage. Since Part C plans provide access to private fee-for-service HMOs and PPOs plans, the coverage can be more comprehensive and cover equipment and services not covered by Part A and B. The downside is it adds cost to your monthly budget and the coverage is dependent on what coverage is offered by private insurance companies in your area.

It’s worth consulting with an expert to evaluate your Part C options during the open enrollment period to see if you can receive coverage. But it’s important to weigh the cost of the Part C plan with the cost of medical alert system, as it could be more expensive even if you get coverage.

Are medical alert systems tax deductible?

According to TurboTax, the IRS doesn’t specifically state whether or not medical alert systems can be a tax deduction. However, there might be ways to add your monthly subscription costs to your tax deductions. When you consider the cheapest medical alert systems cost between $240 and $360 per year, it might be worth looking into.

For starters, the general rule for medical expense deductions is any medical equipment prescribed by a doctor is a deductible expense. That said, since medical alert systems are considered elective medical equipment, it may not be easy to get a doctor to prescribe it.

Another potential option is deductions involving improvements made to a home for medical reasons. This typically includes widening doorways, adding wheelchair ramps, modifying bathrooms or other areas for disabilities. An in-home medical alert system could possibly fall under this category, as it involves installing equipment. That said, it doesn’t involve making home modifications.

Finally, the IRS allows deductions for medical and dental expenses. The deduction allows for medical expenses “paid to a plan that keeps medical information in a computer data bank and retrieves and furnishes the information upon request to an attending physician.” According to Bay Alarm Medical, this allows you to deduct your medical alert system expenses because they store your medical profile in a database and provide the information to EMTs and other emergency providers upon request.

While it’s not explicitly defined by the IRS, it seems like you have several options. But if you’re not sure which route to take or how to deduct the expenses on your taxes, we recommend you consult with a tax expert.

Senior tax credit tips: claiming caregiver tax deductions

Being a caregiver for your aging loved one can be a financial strain. In "Cost of Caring for Elderly Parents Could Be Next Financial Crisis," Marlo Sollitto surveyed adult children caring for an aging parent and found 63 percent had no set plans for how they will pay for their parents' care long term. In addition, 62 percent admit being a caretaker has impacted their financial future.

Fortunately, if being a caretaker is a significant financial strain, your aging parent might qualify as a dependent on your taxes, allowing you to offset some of the costs. According to Intuit TurboTax, you can claim your aging parent as a dependent, just as you would claim a child as a dependent.

Qualifying as a dependent

The first hurdle to claiming your aging parent as a dependent is their personal income. It cannot exceed the exemption limit set by the IRS for the tax year. In 2017, the limit was $4,050. This does not, however, include Social Security income. So, you’re looking primarily at interest and dividend income from savings accounts and other financial accounts.

The second hurdle is how much of their support you take care of. To qualify as a dependent, you have to provide over 50 percent of their annual support. To determine this, you consider utility costs, medical bills, living expenses and the fair market value of their room in your home.

Potential deductions

If your parent doesn’t meet the dependent requirements, you can still deduct medical expenses, but only if you still cover over 50 percent of their support and the medical expenses exceed 10 percent of your income. These deductions include medical bills, hospital visits, medications, medical equipment and supplies, rehabilitation, in-home hospice care, mileage to doctor appointments and dental expenses. You can also deduct the cost of home modifications, including mortgage interest for the modifications, but only if the modifications don’t add value to the house.

When siblings share the cost: multiple support declaration

As is often the case, you might share your elderly parent's caretaking costs with siblings or other relatives. If so, you can still claim your parent as a dependent and deduct medical expenses, as long as your parent’s income qualifies for the exemption limit and over 50 percent of his or her care and support is paid for by you and your siblings. This means, you can claim your parent as a dependent even if you only cover 40 percent of their support, so long as your brother or sister covers 10 percent or more.

However, only one of you can claim your parent as a dependent on each year’s tax return. So if you contribute 40 percent and your brother contributes 10 percent, only one of you can benefit from the dependent. It’s worth sitting down with your siblings before filing your taxes to determine who will claim the dependent to avoid double-filing and the potential fines.

If you have questions or concerns about whether your aging loved one qualifies to be a dependent, how to deduct medical expenses or whether you qualify for deductions, you should always consult with a certified accountant or tax expert. Not only should they have a firm grasp on the current laws and regulations, but they often know of additional tax deductions not listed here that can help you recoup some of the expenses of taking care of your aging parent. You should also check out our reviews of tax software. Most of these products are equipped with help tools and connect you to resources that provide the same expertise you’d find in a CPA.

What type of help button is best, wrist or pendant?

Help buttons are typically available as wrist or pendant options. Both work in the same way, and there’s little difference in performance from either type of system, so you should typically go with the option that is most comfortable (and most likely to be worn). However, as Jame O’Loan, a consultant pharmacist at Doctor4U points out, “One thing that might make a wristwatch the better option is if it’s considered possible that the user could be at risk of accidentally strangling themselves with a pendant necklace.”

Is fall detection necessary?

Most medical alert systems allow you to add automatic fall detection, where an emergency call is placed when a fall is detected. Fall detection typically costs extra but it could be money well invested.

“Fall detection in a Medical Alert System can prove invaluable for someone who is particularly vulnerable to falls. The emergency buttons on a pendant or wrist device are meant to be used following a fall or similar issue, but the ill or elderly person with the button may be incapable of pressing the button following such an incident. Therefore, fall detection can be a precious (even life-saving) back-up option if someone is unable to properly communicate with emergency services,” says O’Loan.

It’s worth pointing out that fall detection systems typically have to be worn as a pendant and that no system is 100% accurate, so there may still be times where a senior would have to press a button to call for help.

In our tests, we’ve not found fall detection sensors to be hugely reliable. We ordered the fall detection add-ons offered by service and thoroughly tested them in conjunction with our other tests. We dropped them from varying heights. We wore them as we simulated dozens of falls, rolls and stumbles onto a variety of surfaces. We dangled them from my finger. We threw them into the ground. You can read about the tests in more detail in our fall detection sensors review. But after over two years of testing over 30 fall detection sensors from 21 medical alert services, we have yet to find a consistent fall detection sensor worth the additional cost. 

In our tests, the consistency of the sensors varied wildly. Some seemingly detected falls for no reason, incapable of determining the difference between real falls and small bumps. One even detected falls while resting on the table. Another detected falls when plugged into the charger because it vibrated to indicate the charge. Nearly half of the fall detection sensors we tested simply wouldn't detect anything unless we threw them on the ground.

If you have someone that’s more likely to fall over, simple changes around the home should be made as a preventative step. 

“Things such as removing clutter or swapping slippery mats and rugs with non-slip alternatives could make all the difference. Speaking to the person your caring for can also give you some ideas on what changes to their home or routine could take place to make things more comfortable and less risky,” says O’Loan.

What other features should I look for?

No two medical alert systems are alike, with many providing unique features and options. It’s worth looking at what’s available to see if there’s a particular service that meets your specific needs.

For example, additional peace-of-mind features may be required. These can be as simple as signing up for a service where the monitoring center will make contact with the senior each day to make sure that they’re alright. More advanced systems can use door and motion sensors to detect activity in a house, sending automated alerts if something’s not right.

For mobile systems, you should look into a system that can provide location updates live to a caregiver app. Knowing exactly where a loved one is can help family rest more easily.

What should you do with medical records?

Some medical alert systems keep complete patient records, including medicine taken, allergies and specific medical conditions. This information can be passed onto responding emergency services. This information has to be kept up-to-date.

However, an old fashioned medical bracelet and/or having medical information close to hand (on the fridge or in a wallet), can make a lot of sense, as it doubles the cover and makes sure that medical staff have information when they need it.

“While carrying details on you about your medication and allergies may prove meaningless if you can still communicate effectively during an emergency, there’s no harm in having them on a wristband. It could end up being a life-saver if certain circumstances occur,” says O’Loan.

Do I need a lockbox?

A lockbox is a small safe that can hold a household key and is PIN protected. If you have a lockbox, emergency services can be given the PIN, so that they can enter a house easily. Without a lockbox, emergency services may have to break into a house, which will result in damage to the property.

Taking care of your health is easier when you have technology on your side, which is why we have rounded up the best GPS medical alert systems to help keep you safe, as well as the best medical alert bracelets and the best fall detection sensors. Monitoring your general health is important too, which is why we'd recommend adding one of the best digital thermometers to your First Aid kid for those times when you're feeling unwell and want to check if you have a fever.