What Are the Best Medical Alert Systems for Seniors with Fall Detection?
Every 11 seconds, an older adult visits the emergency room for a fall, according to the National Council on Aging. Wet floors, slippery rugs, even errant electrical cords can lead to trouble.
"Impairments in vision, hearing, and balance can make an older person more vulnerable to falls than others," says Liron Sinvani, MD, director of the hospitalist service at Northwell Health and associate professor of medicine at Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell in the New York City area. "Those who have conditions such as osteoarthritis or dizziness or take multiple medications also have a greater risk of falling."
The number of personal emergency response systems has grown dramatically over the past several years. Increased competition and technological advances have made medical alert systems affordable for most budgets. If you or an aging loved one lives alone, it may be worth investing in a fall detection medical alert system.
Best medical alert systems for seniors with fall detection
It's possible to get 24/7 emergency monitoring for as little as $20 a month or about 67 cents a day. Automatic fall detection isn't typically included in your monthly monitoring plan, however. You usually pay a separate monthly fee for the feature.
Also, fall detection technology may differ from system to system. Some are more accurate than others. Depending on the system you buy and how you wear it, you could trigger false alarms. Worse yet, the device could miss a fall from a sitting position. This is especially dangerous for people in wheelchairs.
Health editors looked at the best medical alert systems for seniors and evaluated them for fall detection accuracy, overall performance, features, and cost. Here's our list of the best fall detection medical alert systems for 2021.
Expert reviews of medical alert systems
Best overall: Medical Guardian
Based on its winning combination of features, performance, and value, Medical Guardian earned our top rating overall for medical alert systems for seniors. Automatic fall detection isn't included in the monitoring plans but is available as an add-on for $10 a month. Fall detection works with all of the company's in-home and on-the-go devices except the Freedom Guardian smartwatch.
If you're concerned about people knowing you wear a fall detection device, we think you'll love the Medical Guardian discreet jewelry-inspired pendants. There's also a sleek Mini Guardian that's half the size of traditional medical alert devices. It fits neatly in the coin pocket of your favorite jeans or exercise pants.
- No activation or equipment fees (although there's a one-time fee if you choose the Mini Guardian)
- No long-term contracts or termination fees
- Range of up to 1,300 feet with the Classic Guardian system
- Cellular plans available; no landline required
- Frequent deals and discounts plus a free month of service with an annual subscription
- Home Guardian range is only 600 feet
- Monthly fees start at about $30 (not including fall detection)
Right now, you can get a free month of service, free lockbox, and free shipping ($150 value). To find out more, see our in-depth review of Medical Guardian.
TO BUY: medicalguardian.com or call 1-800-485-2218
Best devices and battery life: Bay Alarm Medical
Bay Alarm Medical is one of the oldest and most trusted names in medical alert systems for older adults. Automatic fall detection costs $10 a month in addition to standard monitoring fees.
The Bay Alarm award-winning devices include a high-tech smartwatch, GPS button, and in-car alert system with crash detection. If you love the latest fashions, we think you'll appreciate the Bay Alarm line of designer pendant charms. People also love the long battery life—five years is not uncommon. Bay Alarm also monitors and automatically replaces your batteries.
- Budget-friendly service bundles that combine in-home and on-the-go protection for as little as $40 a month
- No upfront costs, long-term contract, or cancelation fees
- Lifetime rate lock; your rates never go up as long as you maintain your service
- Ability to set up personal emergency notification profiles
- Free monitoring for roommate or spouse (must purchase a second pendant)
- Base unit range is 1,000 feet, slightly less than Medical Guardian and LifeFone
- Additional device charge for GPS button
TO BUY: bayalarmmedical.com or call 1-877-695-0058
Best for fall detection accuracy: Philips Lifeline
Philips developed AutoAlert fall detection technology for its Lifeline medical alert system. Fall detection is included in the HomeSafe AutoAlert and GoSafe 2 systems with no extra fee.
AutoAlert combines three different fall detection technologies. In addition to the accelerometer, which is used in most fall detection systems, Philips adds a barometer to detect tiny differences in atmospheric pressure. The barometer is powerful enough to differentiate between the atmospheric pressure at a standing or sitting position from atmospheric pressure near the floor.
Finally, Philips uses an algorithm to double-check sensor feedback for accuracy. This helps AutoAlert detect falls other systems sometimes miss as well as cut down on the number of false alarms. Philips claims its technology detects 95% of falls.
- Philips Cares app and online hub lets family members and caregivers communicate with one another and monitor their loved one's activities
- Ability to create personalized response plans to designate who to contact in an emergency
- Option to add additional voice communicators so you can talk to the call center from anywhere in your home
- No long-term contract or termination fees
- $50 service activation fee
- Only two device styles
- Monthly monitoring fee starts at $44.95 (including fall detection)
Best value in fall detection systems: Medical Alert
Unlike other medical alert systems on our list that only offer fall detection with certain systems, Medical Alert lets you add fall detection to all of its plans. You can also get automatic fall detection with the on-the-go GPS button.
The service is $10 a month in addition to your monitoring fee. However, if you pay for an annual subscription, the cost drops to $18.30 a month for monitoring and $9.20 for fall detection. In other words, you get dependable emergency monitoring with automatic fall detection for $27.50 a month.
The downside is that fall detection comes in a separate pendant. This means you'll have to wear both a medical alert button and a fall detection pendant. However, if you're watching your budget, wearing two devices may be a small price to pay in exchange for the Medical Alert low monitoring fees.
- No activation fees, long-term contract, or cancelation fees
- Landline or cellular plan options
- Monitor your device, store health data, and connect with the help center with the Medical Alert Connect app
- Simple one-step set up
- Base unit range of only 600 feet
- Must wear two devices if you want fall detection
TO BUY: medicalalert.com or call 1-800-320-0586; Special offer for our readers
Best optional features: LifeFone
The LifeFone senior medical alert system has a lot to recommend it. In addition to long battery life, 1,300 feet of range, and low-cost automatic fall detection, the company is endorsed by the Harvard Medical School. Although monthly monitoring starts at $25 a month, fall detection is just $5, or about half what other companies charge.
If you're looking for an all-in-one home monitoring system, we think you'll appreciate the LifeFone fire, smoke, and carbon monoxide sensor, medication reminder, personal lockbox, and activity assurance system. Caregivers or subscribers can schedule a daily test beep on the system that can be turned off with the push of a button. If there's no response, the call center initiates the notification protocol. Alternatively, you can schedule a daily check-in call and a call center operator will call your phone just to make sure everything's ok. There's also a caregiver app to help you stay connected with loved ones.
- Frequent discounts and perks such as a free lockbox with service
- Landline or cellular plans available
- Multiple devices including an on-the-go GPS button
- No activation fees, long-term contract, or consolation fees
- No detailed information about call center staffing or certification
- Fall detection is a separate pendant
Frequently asked questions
What features are important in fall detection medical alert systems?
You should make sure your device has "automatic" fall detection. Otherwise, it's indistinguishable from standard help buttons that you press when you have an emergency.
It's also a good idea to get a waterproof fall detection device since falls frequently happen in the bath or shower.
The device should be comfortable, easy to wear, and suit your personal style. If you're a fashion-conscious person and your fall detection device is big and clunky, you may not wear it regularly. Finally, make sure you understand the pricing system and what's included. Many of the best medical alert systems for seniors charge extra for fall detection. Read your service agreement carefully so you know you have fall detection in your plan and there are no unpleasant surprises when you get your bill.
Does fall detection really work?
Different systems use different technology, and this can affect their accuracy. The best medical alert systems for seniors with fall detection use a combination of technology that can distinguish between sudden but normal movements and falls.
It's important to choose a device you can clip to your waist or wear around your neck. Wrist devices aren't as reliable since normal arm movements can trigger a false alarm. Although you can buy fall detection devices that fit in your pocket, it's usually a bad idea to carry them that way. The extra layer of fabric can decrease the accuracy of the device.
Who should use fall detection medical alert systems?
Falls are the leading cause of fatal injury among older adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For that reason alone, it's worth considering a fall detection system for any senior who spends time alone.
There's no single test to determine when it's time to buy a fall detection system. However, if you or your loved one answer yes to any of the following questions, it may be time to consider automatic fall detection:
- Do you live alone?
- Have you fallen one or more times in the past year?
- Do you take any prescription medications or drink alcohol?
- Is there frequent ice and snow in the winter where you live?
- Does your home have multiple levels or floors?
- Do you need to step into your bathtub when you want to shower?
- Do you have a medical condition that causes dizziness or lightheadedness at times?
- Are there throw rugs on the floor?
- Do you live with pets?
Any of these situations can increase the risk for a potentially dangerous fall. Even if you have a medical alert system in the home, it may not provide adequate protection. You may not be able to reach the base station or wall-mounted help button. In the event of a serious fall, you may be unconscious and unable to press the panic button on your pendant or wristband.
Fall detection systems: The bottom line
Falls can be terrifying, and no one likes to think about the worst possibilities. But it's a fact that falls pose a real and serious danger to aging adults. Without automatic fall detection, you or a loved one could wait hours for help, which could turn even minor injuries into a serious health crisis.
Fall detection technology isn't perfect but combined with a reliable, personal emergency response system, it provides a crucial second layer of protection. You have peace of mind that help is on the way even if you're unable to push a button to summon it.
Sheila Olson has over two decades of experience writing about Medicare, health, and personal finance. Her work has been featured on sites such as Investopedia, The Motley Fool, and Boomer Benefits. Sheila holds a MPH (Master of Public Health) from Northern Arizona University.