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Considering a medical alert device? Here’s what you should know before buying.

Question: I recently hurt my back and am unsteady on my feet. My husband continues to work away from the house, as do I when I can. I am concerned about needing help if I fall and no one is here to help. How do you know if you are ready for an emergency response device? And how do you go about selecting one? P.S. I am in my early 80s. — S.M.

Answer: Dear S.M. If you have concerns about falling and there is no one to answer your call for help, you might seriously consider getting an emergency response device. The second part of your question has a longer answer.

Fortunately, there are a range of services and products that enable many older adults to live safely at home. One tool is a Person Emergency Response System (PERS), also called a medical alert system. With the aging population and the desire for independence, these products are becoming increasingly popular. They are not just for older adults. Those recovering from surgery, having balance and gait problems and facing certain health conditions find this tool useful.

What is PERS? It is an electronic device designed to let you call in an emergency situation by pushing a button. It has three parts: a small radio transmitter, a console connected to your telephone and an emergency response center that monitors your calls. If you fall when you are alone and cannot reach your phone to call for help, you press a button located on a device you carry or wear around your neck or wrist, or on a belt or in your pocket. Pressing the button alerts the central call center that you are having a problem.

The center will try to reach you by phone immediately. If you do not answer the phone, the call center will try to reach a designated person such as a family member or friend. If it is a medical emergency, an ambulance will be dispatched.

Here are some questions to address in selecting a system as suggested by AARP:

• What system will meet your needs? Although you may primarily be interested in calling for help for falls or emergency services, a PERS can do much more. It can serve as a medical monitor that includes medication reminders and monitoring health vitals. Systems also include monitoring of activity with motion detectors, fitness tracking and more.

What is the best type of equipment for you? Check if it is waterproof. This is important because many accidents occur in the bathroom. Determine the distance the device will operate from the base. If you are working in the yard, will it work? Does it include a GPS so the device is with you wherever you go? Does it connect to a smartphone or bluetooth? Check the battery life and technology updates.

What’s involved in setting it up? Given the size of your home, will you need more than one base unit to cover your entire home and yard? Does it sit on a table or should it be mounted to a wall? Does it require batteries or an electrical connection? What phone service is required — cellular, landline or both?

Here are a few additional questions suggested by the Federal Trade Commission:

  • Is the monitoring center accessible 24 hours a day/seven days a week?

  • What is the average response time?

  • Who are the people that get alerted?

  • What are the installation and monitoring fees?

  • What is the repair policy and what happens if I need a replacement?

  • Will the system work in another location?

  • What kind of training do you provide for your staff?

  • Do I have to sign a contract?

AARP suggests some answers to these questions which you can use as a benchmark. The response time should be a matter of seconds. A live person should be available 24/7. Beware of complicated pricing and hidden fees. The company should have no extra fees related to equipment, activation, service or repairs. Also, you should not have to enter into a long-term contract. Ongoing monthly fees should range between $25 and $45 a month. Note: some companies charge a flat early rate. Be cautious about paying in advance and check for discounts.

Unfortunately, in most cases, Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance companies do not cover the cost.

Finally do an online search and ask friends and family if they have any recommendations.

Thank you S.M. for your important question. Best wishes for a safe and secure life — with joy and pleasure.

Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging, employment and retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. For more information, visit Or follow her at

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