What to Know About Medical Alert Systems

Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on July 08, 2022

If you have an elderly loved one or a family member with a disability living alone and far from home, you may wait with your breath held, dreading the call telling you your loved one has fallen and gotten hurt. What happens if your loved one falls and isn’t near a phone? What if they can’t get up? 

In these scenarios, a medical alert system can save the day and bring peace of mind even when they’re not needed.

On par with residents of other developed, wealthy countries, most people in the U.S. have an average life expectancy of around 76 years — but many people live much longer. Within the next two decades, there will be around 17.5 million single-person households in the United States where the homeowner is over 80 years old. 

Many older people are physically healthy, but they are still susceptible to falls and injuries around the house. If you're concerned about yourself or a loved one living alone and becoming injured after a fall, read through this information about medical alert systems to determine your next steps. 

What Is a Medical Alert System?

A medical alert system can be a button on a necklace, a wristband, or a phone that connects its wearer to medical assistance or emergency services. When you get your system, you’ll notice that regardless of what type and brand you purchase, there will be a component that you wear on your body (so that you have protection at all times) and a base that allows communication between you and the dispatcher you call.

There are several types of medical alert systems, and most are quite affordable at about $25 to $50 per month. You might want a button that you only wear in your home, while other people choose systems that connect to their cell phones so that they’re able to access its benefits when they’re out and about. 

Consider the following options you might be able to choose from.

  • A monitored system: This type is the most popular, and you’ve probably seen it featured on medical alert system ads or commercials. When you press your alert button, you’ll immediately connect to a dispatcher who will send help.
  • A non-monitored system: No dispatcher monitors this system, and emergency services won’t show up if you press this type of button. Instead, it will call one of your pre-programmed contacts like close friends or family members who can come to assist you.
  • A fall alarm: This medical alert system comes with a motion detector that will alert the dispatch center if you fall down. In theory, it’s a great idea, but it might not work perfectly in reality. For example, the device may register a fall if you drop it.
  • A GPS tracker: This feature can be especially handy for older adults with memory problems or those who live independently but sometimes get lost.
  • A cellphone-based medical alert system: For people who like getting out of their homes during the daytime, choosing a cell that has a medical alert program that can connect you with a dispatcher might be the best idea.

How Do Medical Alert Systems Work?

Imagine that you are a senior citizen living alone in an apartment. If you slipped on your bathroom floor and fell, you could then press the medical alert button on your wristband to call the dispatcher associated with your brand’s unit. 

The person on the other end may inquire about what happened, ask who they can contact for you, or call an ambulance for you. Different types of medical alert systems come with different features, like fall alarms, and you’ll be able to access different levels of care depending on the package you've selected.

Who Needs a Medical Alert System?

Not all older people need a medical alert system, but having one in place, especially if you live alone, can bring peace of mind in case anything was to happen in the middle of the night when you couldn’t reach the phone. 

If you don’t have family nearby or if you fall into one of these categories, consider researching systems for yourself or purchasing one for a trial run.

People at risk of falling. Falling is so much of a health risk that the CDC cautions older adults to learn the facts about this easily avoided health hazard that causes serious head injuries, broken bones, and hip fractures

At least one in four older adults (over the age of 65) suffers a fall-related injury every year. Even if this has never happened to you before, recognize that it could. You can help protect yourself and your health by having a medical alert system in place.

People who live alone. Older people who choose to age in place may benefit from the emotional comforts of home — but they may be at higher risk for falling or injuring themselves with no help available. Consider a medical alert system if you don’t have family close by and you don’t carry a charged cell phone at all times.

People with life-threatening conditions. Regardless of your age, if you have a severe medical condition or a physical disability that limits your ability to move around, you might want to consider purchasing a medical alert system. 

Older adults who are diagnosed with conditions that impact their movement, perception, and reaction time can benefit from having a medical alert button. People with chronic illnesses, as well as younger people with disabilities who are moving out of their parents’ homes for the first time, are great candidates for these devices as well. 

Are Medical Alert Systems Difficult to Use?

No. In fact, people buy them for their simplicity. You don’t want to have to worry about falling in your home when your phone is far away, and most people certainly wouldn’t want to be in a position where they’d have to navigate a complicated piece of technology to summon help when needed. These systems’ features vary, but, overall, they are extremely easy to use. 

Are Medical Alert Systems Worth It?

There are a few small drawbacks of getting a medical alert system, but they are minor compared to its potential to save your life. You might dislike wearing a bulky wristband or having to remember to grab your device after you’ve removed it for a bath or shower. Additionally, if you choose to use a device with GPS capabilities, you might need to charge it occasionally so that it has enough battery life to work when you’re on the go. 

You will also need to make sure your new system is high-quality and that it fits your life, too. If you're more comfortable speaking a language other than English and you’re buying a system within the United States, be sure to do your research to find a system that has multiple-language capabilities. Many new models offer support in over 100 languages.

Perhaps you’re resisting the idea of carrying around a button that implies that you need help. It can be frustrating to know that your disability or simply your age means that you will need assistance if you fall. If so, you should reconsider your opinion about these small buttons and research the latest generation of small, portable devices. A medical alert system can be discreet, affordable, and lifesaving when necessary.

Show Sources


Aging In Place: “Who Should Wear a Medical Alert System?”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Facts About Falls.”

Center for Parent Information and Resources: “Getting Ready for Independent Living at the Age of Majority.”

Consumer Reports: “How to Choose a Medical Alert System.”

Harvard Medical School: “The new generation of wearable medical alert systems.”

Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University: “The Number of People Living Alone in Their 80s and 90s is Set to Soar.” “A 2022 Guide to Medical Alert Systems.”

VCU News: “U.S. life expectancy continued to fall in 2021.”

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