After more than 40 hours of research and over a month of testing 13 devices, we think the GreatCall Lively Mobile is the best medical alert system for most people. Unlike most devices, it can reach either 911 or a call center from anywhere in your home or out in the world. That means the GreatCall Lively Mobile can help in all manner of situations, from getting EMTs and loved ones on the scene after a fall to contacting a friend for you if you can’t find your phone (yes, really; we tried it).
It’s less expensive per month than any similar device, and relatively stylish, too. But choosing a medical alert is a personal decision, so there are different factors to consider: If you won’t wear a medical alert that looks vaguely like a medical device, won’t remember to charge a medical alert, or will have trouble pushing a button during an emergency, we have picks for you, too.
The water-resistant GreatCall Lively Mobile can dial a call center or 911 directly (the ability to do both is a rare feature) from anywhere, and it’s easier to wear than the competition: It can go on a lanyard (with a magnetic clasp) that’s long enough to slide over your head, or on a belt clip. The silver box and plain white indicator light are more understated than the competition, and GreatCall offers the lowest-cost month-to-month plan of anything we looked at. The battery lasts 24 hours, according to GreatCall, though we found it could go up to 50 hours with minimal use. The advertised battery life is on the low end of the models we tested, but our experts recommended getting in the habit of charging your medical alert every day anyway. The GreatCall Lively Mobile works anywhere there’s Verizon cell service, which we’ve found to be the most reliable network.
If your area is better covered by AT&T service, our top pick is unavailable, or you’d prefer a device that will verbally tell you if it’s low on battery (versus via an indicator light or a chime), we also like the Medical Guardian Premium Guardian. Like many medical alerts, it reaches a call center that can then dial 911 or a friend on your behalf. It’s easier to set up than the competition, with clear instructions on the inside of the box’s lid. The call center picks up within 30 seconds, up to four times as fast as some other models. The diamond-shaped indicator light flashes in multiple colors (green or red to indicate battery life, and multicolor when it’s dialing the call center) and sticks out more than the square, white indicator light on the Lively Mobile. The Premium Guardian is pricier per month, and can be worn as a pendant or on a belt clip. At 36 hours, the advertised battery life is longer than our main pick’s (we found it could last an additional 12 with minimal use, for a total that’s about the same as the Lively’s).
If you are with someone whenever you leave your house and have a small living space, or just want protection in one place (like the shower), you might not need a mobile medical alert like our pick. An at-home medical alert is less expensive with a less bulky button to carry, but the range is very limited. Most at-home systems are similar, but we found the Lifestation At Home to be a little easier to use and less expensive than the competition (month-to-month plans are $30 per month for a device that connects to a landline, and $37 per month for one with cellular service). The major downside of the Lifestation At Home is that you cannot speak directly into the device. If you fall, you can push the button from a few hundred feet away from the base station to dial the call center, but you’ll need to be within shouting distance of the base station to communicate whether you’re in need of 911 help or just want an emergency contact to come help you get up. (If you are unable to speak, or the call center cannot hear you, they will follow a course of action that you specify when you sign up: call a family member, call EMTs, or some combination thereof.) The battery in the wearable button lasts three years, and the base unit plugs into the wall. The button connects to the base via radio signal.
If looks matter to you and you have an iPhone, or if you may have trouble pushing a button in an emergency, consider the Apple Watch Series 2. Though it’s bare-bones in emergency functions, it’s much more discreet to wear than other devices we tested. Because compliance matters more than anything when it comes to these devices, wearability is important. At a one-time cost of a few hundred dollars, the Apple Watch works out to be less expensive than buying a separate medical alert with a monthly bill after about a year of use (not including the cost of iPhone service, which is required for the Apple Watch to place phone calls). A button on the side of the watch allows you to place a call to 911 and can alert your emergency contacts that you placed a call when you are in range of your phone or connected to the same Wi-Fi network, and you can speak directly into the watch. You can also place an ordinary nonemergency call through the watch, either by scrolling through your contacts list or saying, “Hey, Siri, call [contact].” The Apple Watch battery lasts 18 hours with some use (less if you’re using it to make frequent phone calls).
If you want an extra layer of security at home and are considering getting a voice-controlled smart-home device anyway, Ask My Buddy is a free service available on the Amazon Echo (here’s our full guide on Amazon’s Alexa devices). If you need help and are in the same room, you can say “Alexa, ask my buddy to send help” and your emergency contacts will get a notification via email, text, or robocall. You can also place a call through the Echo to anyone with an Alexa device, or the app. Of all the medical-alert-capable devices, the Echo plus Ask My Buddy is one of the least expensive and least intrusive options. However, it offers very minimal protection: It can’t travel with you, and it can’t actually call 911 or reach anyone who is constantly available to dial 911 for you if you ask. We wouldn’t rely on any medical alert alone to save us in an emergency where every second counts, anyway, but this one ranks the lowest in terms of how much it can help in a variety of situations.
Medical alert systems (sometimes referred to as personal emergency response systems) have been around for decades. Perhaps the most recognizable name brand, Life Alert, with its ear-worm of a slogan “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up,” was founded in the 1980s.
To understand how people use medical alerts, I spoke to George Demiris, PhD, a professor in the department of biomedical informatics and medical education at the University of Washington; Marita Kloseck, PhD, director of the Sam Katz Community Health and Aging Research Unit at Western University in Ontario, Canada; and Majd Alwan, senior vice president of technology and executive director of the LeadingAge Center for Aging Services Technologies.
I also spoke to experts who help people select medical alerts: Mindy Renfro, who has worked as a physical therapist and is currently a research assistant professor at the Rural Institute On Disabilities, part of the University of Montana; Richard Caro, who writes about medical alerts at Tech-enhanced Life; Tony Rovere, chair of the Long Island chapter of the National Aging in Place Council and blogger at StuffSeniorsNeed.com; and Melissa Kantor, the executive director of Long Island at Home, which sells medical alerts and aging-in-place services to local seniors.
I fall well below the typical age at which people purchase a medical alert, so I approached the research as though I were selecting one for a loved one to use. According to experts, I’m not far off from a typical customer: Many medical alerts are purchased by adult children looking for ways to better support a parent who is aging in place.
I spent weeks trying out the devices for myself. I also consulted a family member who already uses one, my great-aunt Kay.
My great-aunt Kay lives alone in Erie, Pennsylvania, near the farm where she and my grandma grew up. She’s had a couple nasty falls in the past five years, but she doesn’t want to live in a nursing home. She prefers her own house and her daily routines. But she wants to know that if she needs to, she’ll be able to call for help quickly. Her medical alert device helps her maintain an independent lifestyle, as it does for many. “I dread just being an ill person who can’t cope with daily looking after yourself,” said one participant in the focus groups researcher Marita Kloseck conducted on what it’s like to live with a medical alert. “The last thing I want to do is lose my independence and be an invalid, it’s my biggest fear.”
If you’re living independently and at risk for falling or another medical emergency, a medical alert is one safety measure to consider. Out of the 30 medical alert users in Ontario, Canada, that Kloseck and her colleagues spoke to, 90 percent agreed that the devices helped them maintain their independence.
Though many people, like Aunt Kay, turn to medical alert systems after they’ve had a scary incident, the best time to get one is before you need it. If you are having trouble standing up to get out of a chair, said Renfro, it’s a good time to consider one—especially if you live somewhere where neighbors are few and far between, as is the case in Montana, where Renfro works.
It’s not just for falls. One interviewee in Kloseck’s focus group reported successfully contacting EMTs via a medical alert after indigestion-like pain for over a day. “I think they must have flew here!” Another said she liked having a medical alert in case someone suspicious showed up at the door.
A medical alert might simply relieve anxiety about emergencies. “You hear about people who fall and then can’t get help and they lay there for sometimes hours, but it just scares you when you think that could happen,” noted one participant in Kloseck’s survey on what motivated her to get a medical alert. “Subscribers reported feeling a sense of security or peace of mind,” Kloseck writes. As Aunt Kay puts it: “I feel protected.”
A medical alert should be just one line of defense against any medical emergency, along with working with a physician or physical therapist to monitor or improve your health and eliminating any hazards around the house, said Alwan. No devices we tested worked perfectly, and no medical alert will undo the damage of a fall (or anything else). Though all experts I spoke to agreed that medical alert systems made you safer, it’s hard to tell by how much. Studies suggest that these systems can reduce the amount of time spent on the floor after a fall, but there’s nothing conclusive in the way of peer-reviewed work showing how many lives they save per year. (In fact, experts I spoke to mostly said that their own parents didn’t have medical alerts, preferring to rely instead on check-ins with a friend or neighbor).
You should get a medical alert only if you’re committed to wearing and using it. “I don’t even move without it,” Aunt Kay said. It doesn’t do any good sitting atop your dresser, or if you don’t feel comfortable pushing the button in an emergency. They make poor surprise gifts, says Renfro. If you’d like to foot the bill for a device for a loved one, make sure it’s something they want, and involve them in the process of picking it out.
Today, many of us already carry around a emergency help button: our cell phones. In fact, for some, the ability to dial 911 is the main appeal of having a wireless device at all, according to the Federal Communications Commission. If you’re in the habit of carrying around a phone constantly, it might be a good alternative to a medical alert.
There are a few downsides: Most important, your phone might not be water-resistant, or at least might be awkward to take in the shower and hard to reach if you slip. It doesn’t have an option for automatic fall detection, which some medical alerts do. In a nonemergency it can’t reach a call center, so you’ll have to dial family until someone picks up. And it’s not set up by default to automatically share your location, as many medical alerts will with the call center agent. A phone’s battery also doesn’t last as long as a medical alert system’s, if you’re using it to do other things.
However, if you know you’ll have trouble remembering to wear a medical alert, or can’t afford $20+ per month, committing to keeping your phone on you at all times is better than nothing.
Some companies have apps that provide access to a call center just like medical alerts do, at about a third of the price of a monthly medical alert subscription. However, some can be confusing to use, slow to load, and even sometimes freeze, according to Caro, who tested out three of the apps. They’re also stuck behind a lock screen.
There are a few devices that offer medical-alert-like features that are not technically medical alerts, including the Apple Watch and other smart watches, Amazon Alexa devices, and Google Home. Though these devices can offer emergency features, none will be as reliable as a device that has the sole purpose of reaching help. If you know you won’t wear a traditional medical alert, these are better than nothing.
The most important feature of a medical alert system is that it’s something you are willing to use. Not even the most reliable device will be of use if it’s stashed in a drawer. Comfort and stylishness tended to decrease with range, I found. (A notable exception to this was the Apple Watch, which was the most comfortable and stylish of the bunch, and can go anywhere as long as your iPhone goes too.)
We ended up testing a wide range of devices that covered all the possible configurations, but here’s how to figure out which kind works best for you. (Finding a device that you like might involve some trial and error: it took Aunt Kay two tries to find a medical alert that works well for her needs, and some time after that to figure out how to wear the device in a way that’s comfortable.)
If you have a living space that’s bigger than a couple rooms, or if you leave your house alone, a mobile medical alert, which can go anywhere there’s a cell signal, will work best to keep you safe. They consist of a unit a little smaller than a deck of cards that you wear around your neck or on a belt clip that houses a GPS system, a speaker, and a microphone. The button calls someone directly from the device, and you speak to them through the unit.
The button on most mobile medical alerts dials a call center (though our favorite can also reach 911). Agents are available 24/7, and pick up anywhere between 15 seconds and two minutes after you press the button. They can send 911 to your house, call a friend or family member on your behalf, or simply keep you company while you troubleshoot the situation yourself. They typically have a $20 to $70 monthly fee that includes the cost of the service and the device. (There’s often an activation or equipment fee, too.) Mobile medical alerts work off mobile carriers (e.g., AT&T, Verizon), so you’ll need to check the coverage in your area before making a purchase. They also need to be charged daily, or every few days, depending on the model.
If you don’t want to call 911 directly in a minor emergency or if you slip in the shower while you’re naked, mobile medical alerts offer a way to get a variety of help, via a call center. The call center employees are there 24/7, unlike family members who will inevitably be sleeping, in work meetings, or on vacation sometimes.
Further, mobile systems that connect to a call center almost always come with an option for automatic fall detection for about $10 extra per month (if you don’t like it, you can turn it off). When the device senses a change in vertical acceleration, it calls for help. If you are totally knocked out, the operator will attempt to figure out your location via the GPS signal from the device.
Fall detection is a great idea, in theory, said experts. In practice, it’s prone to registering false positives, or failing to detect actual falls. “It can be embarrassing, it can [disrupt] activities, it can be costly,” said Demiris. (Part of the problem: Stunt actors falling accidentally on purpose are often used to calibrate fall detection.)
Even if the device does successfully make a call after you’ve slipped, if you’ve been knocked unconscious, the operator at the call center could still have trouble figuring out where to send help. Most mobile systems have built-in GPS, but the little dot that shows operators where you are is subject to drift around. (Have you ever opened Google Maps on your phone and had the blue dot appear somewhere you aren’t? That’s it.) There are technical improvements that can be made on bare-bones GPS—like a device that checks in with Wi-Fi signals, when possible—but no device will always pinpoint your location accurately.
At-home medical alerts are devices that are for use just at home, with a base station that can be connected to cell service or a landline. With just a few exceptions, these consist of a small, light button that can be worn on your wrist or around your neck. Push the button within about 600 feet of the base station (they’re connected via a radio signal), and you can speak to an operator through the base, which looks kind of like an answering machine.
These medical alert systems tend to have lower monthly costs, and a device that’s far less bulky and annoying to wear (it’s about the weight and diameter of a quarter). There’s nothing to remember to charge, either. But the limited range can be frustrating, according to participants in a survey conducted by researchers at Jönköping University in Sweden, not just because it limits movement. “In particular, they felt that the lack of new technical innovations in the alarm system, such as the inclusion of a global positioning system (GPS), was a clear indication that their needs were not considered priorities in society,” the researchers write. A homebound system can make you feel homebound, which isn’t useful for people who want to be active outside of the house.
Some companies offer affordable devices that can be used to call a loved one or even 911 directly. They do not reach call centers or have their own cell service (the two features are typically paired). These are less expensive because they lack a monthly service fee; rather, they rely on Wi-Fi, a smartphone, or a landline. They range from specialized medical alerts to the Apple Watch.
No matter what style of medical alert you want—mobile or traditional, with a call center or not—you have a few options for how you’ll wear the device. Medical alerts can hang around your neck or wrist, or clip to your belt; for any particular device, there are often at least two options. What works best is largely personal preference, though Demiris notes that a device worn around your neck can be easier to make a habit of wearing if you’re used to putting on jewelry in the morning (it’s also necessary if you are using automatic fall detection).
Battery life varies broadly for medical alerts, anywhere from just a day to a week. Experts advised getting in the habit of charging the device every night, so we didn’t prioritize long battery life.
There’s typically no volume control on medical alert systems, which are about as loud as a cell phone at top volume and on speaker. The advantage is that there’s no way to accidentally turn the volume down. However, if you’re hard of hearing, volume could potentially be an issue.
We looked only at devices that came with the option to make monthly payments or required no payments at all, and we discarded any that require you to have an annual contract for the service on the advice of Tony Revere, who blogs at StuffSeniorsNeed.com. You should be able to send the device back without breaking a contract if you try a particular one and realize it—or the whole concept—just isn’t for you.
There are various certifications that medical alert equipment and call center equipment can have to make sure they’re up to certain safety standards. For example, companies can pay Underwriter Laboratories to verify their device has certain features. Experts we spoke to disagreed on the level of importance of these certifications, but no one thought that it was a dealbreaker to not have one. And because we did our own testing, we were able to learn firsthand if a system was reliable.
Some companies will advertise that their call center is based in the US. Caro, who writes about how to pick a medical alert on Tech-enhanced Life and logged many hours himself testing medical alerts, pointed out to me that all the call centers he’s encountered sounded like they were based in the States.
It’s hard to tell a lot about how easy, effective, and comfortable a medical alert is from descriptions online or from people who may have only used one on their own with no point of comparison, so we decided to try the devices ourselves. I spent several weeks integrating the devices into my life, and then pushing their limits as much as possible.
I went through the setup process for each device, which ranged from placing the device in a charging cradle (which all mobile medical alerts use) and following a few verbal instructions, to leafing through a fine-print manual. One device required a traditional landline; I trekked to a coworker’s parents’ apartment on the Upper West Side to use one after it wasn’t compatible with our VoIP system at work.
I used each medical alert for at least a day, wearing the mobile medical alerts to work and out with friends, making test calls in all manner of locations. For a while in February, my outfit was consistently punctuated by a low-hanging, blinking device, my kitchen counter and bedside table littered with in-home devices and charging cradles. I made several test calls with each device and compared both response time and the quality of customer service.
We prioritized devices that could be worn a variety of ways and made accommodations for people without fine motor skills, like a lanyard with a magnetic clasp that doesn’t need to be looped over a head. Some devices require dexterity not everyone has, like pushing a lanyard through a small hole, or attaching them to a belt clip.
When I wore the Medical Guardian Premium Guardian out one night with my coworkers, the diamond indicator light blinked red as I ate my food. In the course of chatting about work, I mentioned that I was trying out medical alerts. “Oh that’s what that thing is,” one coworker said. “I thought maybe you had an allergy.” While I was getting used to having a medical alert on me, they still read as a medical device and a little bit strange to the outside world.
I was surprised and delighted to learn during this process that, despite the fact that advertising for these devices seems to prey on our fear of mortality and disaster, I didn’t have to be in a life-or-death situation in order to buzz the call centers. The operators are just as happy to help talk through a situation and provide support from afar, and never seemed to be itching to push me into declaring an emergency.
The buttons for in-home medical alerts are all tiny and barely noticeable. Mobile medical alerts were the biggest nuisance to wear, in part because of their size, and in part because they tag along for all manner of social situations. They are heavier and can draw considerable attention. I got in the habit of tucking the medical alerts into my shirt, per Aunt Kay’s advice. Some made their presence known even when they were out of sight, chiming to indicate their charge status when I was in a crowded elevator at work, or even speaking up at inopportune times. One day at work, the Premium Guardian verbally announced to me and everyone in a two-cubicle range that its battery was low.
I spent a lot of time doing the dreaded thing—pushing the button to ask for help—just to see what would happen. Some devices made chiming sounds, some vibrated, and some noted that they were dialing the call center. The best medical alerts continuously did something as I waited for someone to pick up, as long spaces of silence would leave me wondering if I had accidentally hung up or lost signal. For medical alerts with call centers, someone typically picked up within 30 seconds. Longer than that felt like an eternity, even from the safety of my desk or bed; I wouldn’t want a loved one waiting that long during an emergency.
All call centers say more or less the same line when they pick up: “Hello, do you need help?” I usually said no, I was just placing a test call. In one instance, curious if the call center would be willing to help out in a truly minor situation, I asked the operator to call my boyfriend to tell him I was running late to meet him. The operator was happy to oblige.
Voice-controlled units like the Amazon Echo don’t require you to wear anything, but work reliably only when you’re in the same room. I set up the Echo in my kitchen, and when the dishwasher was running, even when I was screaming “Hey, Alexa!”—the signal that you’re about to give the device a command—over and over from a room away, it could not hear me. (This is also a pitfall of relying on a device to play music and be able to hear you in an emergency.)
I had similar experiences with traditional in-home medical alerts. The range on these devices is technically several hundred feet from the base station, and though the call center operators could hear me yelling from a room away, they had trouble understanding me. (I just moved closer to the base station, but in the event that you fall and they can’t hear you, they’ll follow a preplanned course of action that you decide when you sign up, like calling a family member and then EMTs.)
Services that try to use both the button and a base station to communicate were suboptimal. In the case of one hybrid mobile and home device, an operator first tries to talk to you via a stationary home box, and then switches to the wearable if you don’t respond there. After pushing the button at work, I sat in an empty conference room for a full two minutes while, presumably, someone first tried asking my empty apartment if anyone needed help before switching over to the speaker around my neck.
During test calls, I asked operators to identify my location. No GPS was consistently accurate, though they were often correct within a couple blocks. This makes backup measures attractive, like the GreatCall Lively Mobile’s Web interface where you can log your typical schedule.
Sometimes the GPS was way off. Once, while testing the Bay Alarm Medical GPS Alert System, an operator said that I was at the New York Times building in midtown where the device had lost power, when in fact I’d gone home to Brooklyn. The device lost power downtown, and had only just been recharged when I placed the test call; I suspect that it hadn’t been on long enough to update its location. On another occasion, the GPS on a device wasn’t working at all, and took two phone calls to customer service to fix. I found that operators were rarely able to troubleshoot problems with the device or answer questions about service.
Though call center employees were willing and able to help with even minor incidents, they weren’t inclined to make small talk. Once, after noting my location an operator did exclaim that she used to live on my street, and we had a short conversation about the rising rents in Brooklyn. But with few exceptions, the call center people hung up quickly after addressing my requests.
Despite being vaguely worried when I started this project about accidentally having EMTs show up at my house, I never once pushed the button on a medical alert unintentionally during testing, including a few occasions when I just threw them in my purse. If you do accidentally hit the button, chances are you will be connected to a call center, and you can just clarify what happened with an operator. (Medical alerts make noise when they are placing a call, so a butt-dial will not go unnoticed.) Most medical alerts do not call 911 directly, and those that do require a more deliberate, prolonged push to reach emergency services.
At first I skipped providing my emergency contacts, in part because I didn’t expect to be in immediate danger, but also because it was such an easy step to overlook. In all but one case, it was possible to get through the activation process without providing them, which you typically have to do over email, fax, or via snail mail to ensure that the contact information is entered correctly. Only one model, the GreatCall Lively Mobile, allowed you to enter them in an online interface.
The GreatCall Lively Mobile was one of the easiest mobile medical alerts to wear and use, and costs less than any other medical alert of its kind that we considered, with service starting at $20 per month, with one-time fees totaling $80. The rectangular silver and black (or gold and black) design draws minimal attention, and the call center consistently picks up quickly—up to eight times as fast as others. The battery life is 24 hours, according to the company, among the the shortest we considered, though I found it lasted nearly twice that long with minimal use.
The device is a little smaller and lighter than a deck of cards. One big button in the middle dials the call center or—if you hold it down—911. A small button on the back turns it on and off. A small battery-indicator light changes colors when the Lively is low on charge, but it doesn’t draw a ton of attention to itself. When the Lively shuts off from low battery, it announces that it’s doing so. (It was loud enough to wake me up at 4 a.m. one day, a good feature if you’ve forgotten to charge it and have missed the battery light.)
The Lively Mobile can go anywhere there’s Verizon cell service, including your shower, as it’s waterproof. In separate tests, we’ve found Verizon to be the most reliable network, though it doesn’t cover every part of the country. Check here to see if your area is covered.
The Lively Mobile is one of the only medical alerts we looked at that has the option to call either a call center, or—by holding down the button—911 directly. The speaker and microphone in the device provide sound quality that’s better than that of many other devices we considered.
If you dial an agent from the Lively, they’ll typically pick up about 15 seconds after you push the button; other devices left us hanging for what felt like forever. If you are lost, or unable to speak, the agent can look at a GPS signal and a list of places you frequent to help identify your location.
The Lively Mobile is the only device that has an easy-to-use online interface where you can store emergency contact information. With all other devices, you have to email or snail mail your emergency contact information (this ensures accuracy compared with speaking the information over the phone).
GreatCall offers the most affordable basic service packages of all the mobile medical alerts we tested, at $20. Fall detection costs an extra $15. GreatCall also has a middle tier, for $25, with access to doctors via the device (though they emphasize that this feature should not be used in an emergency), and allows family and friends to tell when you leave home or return via the GreatCall Link app. The first tier of service should work well for most people, though if the idea of being able to loosely track a loved one’s movements appeals to you, or if you want the extra security of (somewhat unreliable) fall detection, consider upgrading.
The Lively Mobile has a separate on-off button, which means it’s impossible to accidentally turn it off when you’re calling for help.
The lanyard is soft and black, shorter than those of much of the competition, and has a magnetic clasp so you don’t need to be able to lift your arms above your head to put it on or mess with a complicated closure. (There’s also an option to wear the device on a belt clip).
The instruction booklet for the Lively Mobile is easy to read. This is a small point, but it was much better than the thick, tiny-print instruction books that some of the competition had.
GreatCall has been around since 2006—the company is best known for making Jitterbug flip phones—and debuted the Lively Mobile in mid-2016. The device is an upgraded version of GreatCall’s previous mobile medical alert, the Splash, which garnered positive reviews. Medical alert reviewer Caro praised the Splash for the call center’s fast response time, ability to call 911 directly, and easy online interface, all qualities that the Lively shares.
No medical alert is actively enjoyable to wear, and the Lively Mobile is no exception. It will likely take some time to get used to having the device around your neck. On the Lively, a white light flashes consistently to indicate that it’s in an area with service. Though this was less intrusive than the more colorful lights on some other devices, it could still be annoying; there were no mobile medical alerts without lights.
The length of the Lively Mobile’s lanyard is not adjustable. Though I found the relatively short lanyard to be easier to wear than the competition’s, this might not be the case for everyone. Even though the lanyard can be easily swapped out, most traditional lanyards (which have a clasp that attaches to a badge) will be a little awkward. If you want a different lanyard with a specific length, you’ll need a little DIY savvy.
If your area is not covered by Verizon, the Lively Mobile won’t work for you. Check your coverage here.
Another flaw that all medical alerts share: the GPS signal can be unreliable. However, the Lively helps skirt this by prompting you to enter information into an online database (from a computer or a smartphone app) about your schedule and where you go during your days so the call center staff have something to fall back on. It’s the only medical alert that has this feature.
Of all the medical alerts we tested, the Lively Mobile has one of the shortest advertised battery lives: 24 hours, as opposed to 36 hours or even several days. I found the battery lasted over 50 hours with minimal use, though I wouldn’t want a loved one counting on it working for that long on a single charge. Experts recommend getting in the habit of charging your medical alert nightly, so that you don’t have to think about it. If this will be hard for you, consider an in-home medical alert, which doesn’t need to be charged.
The Premium Guardian, which dials a call center and has no option to call 911 directly, comes with more hand-holding than anything else we tested, but is a little more conspicuous than the Lively. It’s also pricier, at about $50 per month (if you choose a month-to-month plan; you’ll also pay $10 for shipping, and you can’t cancel within the first 90 days). Battery life is advertised at 36 hours, though we found it could last about 48—the same as our main pick. The call center agents took longer than the Lively’s to pick up, but not as long as the rest of the competition. As with all mobile medical alerts, call center agents can help find you via GPS if you’re lost or unable to talk, though it’s not always accurate.
We like that Medical Guardian’s call center typically picks up within 30 seconds. While the device is dialing, it makes a chiming sound, so you won’t be left wondering whether you successfully placed a call.
A diamond button lights up in different colors to indicate when the unit is low on battery, which is more distracting than the Lively Mobile’s separate battery light. The Premium Guardian does not have a separate power button, making it possible to shut the device off when you’re trying to call for help. (We think this can be avoided by practicing using the device.)
When it’s running low on battery, the Premium Guardian will remind you verbally to charge it, which can be a nuisance if you’re out in public. But if you are prone to letting your devices go uncharged, or would have trouble noticing a small indicator light changing color, the verbal reminder is useful.
The Premium Guardian uses AT&T cellular service. Check your coverage here.
The matte white device doesn’t stick out too much against clothing. The gray lanyard is easy to attach and adjust, and the Premium Guardian can also be used with a belt clip. It’s possible to swap out the lanyard for another one, though it will require cutting the lanyard off the clip so you can tie a new one to the device.
The inside of the Guardian’s box’s lid has crystal-clear steps to follow that prompt you to call customer service so they can walk you through setting up the device, and the system also comes with an instruction manual.
If you just need a medical alert to cover you in a couple rooms of your house, consider the Life Station At Home system, which is about $30 per month (there’s no activation fee). Like all in-home medical alert systems, it consists of a small button that you can wear around your neck or on your wrist that wirelessly connects to an answering-machine-like base station that lets you speak to a call center agent (there’s no option to dial 911 directly). Though it can’t leave your house, and you can’t speak through the button, it’s easier to wear than our top picks. There’s no charging required; the button’s battery lasts about three years. Home medical alert systems are all very similar, but Life Station’s is a little less expensive than other options we looked at, and didn’t give us any trouble during testing.
The main perk of an at-home system is that the device is much easier to wear than those in mobile systems: The Life Station button is about the weight and diameter of a quarter, and just a little thicker. In comparison, our main pick and runner-up are just a little smaller and lighter than a deck of cards. If you don’t need a medical alert that you can leave the house with, are mostly concerned about slipping in one room—the bathroom, for example—or know that you just won’t wear anything but the least-intrusive device, the Life Station At Home might be a good option.
The major downside of this or any at-home system is that its range is incredibly limited, even if you’re just using it in your home. The range of this device is several hundred feet—that is, the button can still communicate with the base station if you are on the other side of a small house. Though it’s difficult to communicate through the base station if you’re even one room away, you can choose at the time of setup what course of action the call center should take if you push the button and they don’t hear anything.
Apple Watch Series 2 has basic emergency functions compared with most medical alerts we looked at, and requires a little tech savvy to use. Out of everything we tested, it’s the only wearable device that’s stylish and doesn’t look at all like a medical device. You will need to have an iPhone for the watch to work, but if you’re already paying for that service and you are comfortable with navigating Apple services, the watch may be relatively affordable—it costs $369, which will buy you less than 8 months of service with a typical mobile medical alert.
The SOS feature (which was introduced on the Series 2 model) allows users to dial 911 by pushing and holding down the button on the side of the watch, and can automatically text up to three emergency contacts and give them your location when you do so. Apple Watch hasn’t had emergency features long enough for our experts to evaluate its usefulness as a medical alert, though they agreed it could be useful. Apple Watch’s battery lasts 18 hours with some use.
You can speak to a 911 responder directly through the watch, or if it’s a nonemergency, you can dial a friend or family member through the watch verbally, by saying (for example), “Siri, call [name].” The sound quality of Apple Watch is better than any medical alert we considered. There are a variety of bands to choose from (some costing hundreds of dollars themselves, like a Hermes band), making Apple Watch Series 2 the most customizable of all the devices we looked at.
Aside from the limited functionality, the major downside of Apple Watch is that you have to be within Bluetooth range or connected to the same Wi-Fi network as your phone for it to place a call. This means that you can’t necessarily just set your phone down in your house, wander away from it, and know that your Apple Watch is going to keep you safe in the event of an emergency (one of the key advantages of a true mobile medical alert system).
I also found that navigating the tiny screen on the watch could be challenging, though this was mostly an issue for using functions other than the SOS feature. (However, if you buy Apple Watch, you’ll likely want it to work for other things, too.) If you find yourself fairly comfortable with most Apple devices, and okay with the size of newspaper print (the font can be enlarged on some apps, like text messaging, but not all), scrolling through apps on your wrist shouldn’t be too much of an adjustment.
If you don’t carry your phone around in your home, won’t remember or want to wear even a small button, would have trouble using a button in an emergency but can vocalize and enunciate pretty clearly, or just want another layer of security, consider using Ask My Buddy paired with the Amazon Echo (you’ll need to have a smartphone or tablet to use it). When you say, “Alexa, ask my buddy for help” the service will send a text, email, and phone call to a list of contacts to let them know they should check in. You can also place a phone call through the Echo to anyone who has the free Amazon Alexa app on their phone. Though the Echo may be the easiest and least expensive device to fit into your lifestyle, this setup would not be helpful at all in emergencies, and only marginally helpful in nonemergencies. Still, it would be better than nothing.
There’s nothing to remember to wear or charge, and the device doesn’t look anything like a medical device because it’s not. You’ll get all the other capabilities of the Echo (here’s our full guide), and at $180, it costs less than four months’ worth of service with a traditional medical alert company.
Unlike other services, this one can’t connect you to 911 directly or via a call center or confirm that someone received your request. The range is small; the feature works reliably only if you’re in the same room as the Echo (that said, multiple Echos or Echo Dots can all be linked together to cover many rooms or a larger home). As such, Ask My Buddy should be treated only as an additional tool for a little added peace of mind in addition to thoughtful design of a home around the person using it. I wouldn’t want a loved one of mine counting on any medical alert alone to keep them safe, but especially not the Echo.
We think that the Echo will be the best device to pair with Ask My Buddy for most people, though it also works with other Amazon Alexa devices and Google Home (our full guide). The Echo indicates that it heard you with a ring of light at the top of the device, and it’s taller than Google Home (which has a slanted face with indicator lights) and other Alexa options, making it easier to see from across the room.
Ask My Buddy was a little easier to set up and use on the Echo than on Google Home (you’ll still need a little app savvy, or have someone around who does, as you’ll need to connect the device to a smartphone and Wi-Fi).
The range on any voice-controlled device is smaller than that of a home medical alert system with a base station. When I tried screaming “Hey, Alexa” over and over from a room away while the dishwasher was running, it didn’t pick up my voice. The sound quality on either end of the phone call placed through the Alexa wasn’t as good as it is on a traditional medical alert device.
Though you may run into range problems with a home medical alert with a base station, it’s easier to get someone on the line (you just push a button), at which point, they’d at least know that you needed help even if you were unable to communicate; the same can’t be said of a call that’s not picked up or a text that goes unseen.
Another concern we have about Ask My Buddy: It’s a free app run by volunteers. There’s no guarantee that it’s sticking around, and you can’t contact people otherwise through an Echo. There’s an email to send issues and questions to, but you can’t get in touch with a representative right away if you run into a problem with its service. Amazon does have a customer service line to help with Echo setup.
For medical alerts that come with a monitoring service, experts recommend pushing the button on your medical alert at least once a month to confirm that it’s working well. This step is especially important when you first start using your medical alert.
Pushing the button should feel like second nature during a true emergency. One participant in the University of Western Ontario focus group recalled forgetting about the device during a heart attack: “The button didn’t even come into my mind. All I knew I was in trouble.”
Plus, you need to make sure that the device works the way you think it does. Aunt Kay fell outside her house, and, thinking she had a mobile system, pushed the button to call for help to no avail. Though she was able to crawl to her car to retrieve her cell phone, the incident left her and our family shaken. It’s scary to find out you don’t have help at the ready when you think you do.
Through expert advice, and some trial and error, I learned that there are a few things that I’d want my loved ones doing during a test call to ensure that their device is working properly.
I also learned that the agents at the call center are typically not able to help you troubleshoot any issues that the device itself is having. If you learn during a test call that anything is amiss, you’ll need to hang up and call customer service.
We quickly eliminated Life Alert—the brand so ubiquitous it’s name is often used to describe medical alerts in general—from the running. The company requires users to sign a 36-month contract that can be broken only if you go into 24/7 care or die. That’s a dealbreaker because it’s hard to know if a particular medical alert (or any medical alert at all) is something you’ll use until you try it out. The ability to cancel your service with minimal penalties is key to a good medical alert.
Beyond that, Life Alert’s marketing is aggressive, making perusing its products annoying at best. There are outsized claims about its products’ lifesaving abilities on the website, but minimal information on the devices themselves. When I called the customer service line for more information, a representative immediately asked for my address. As I asked questions about the service, a rep encouraged me to give my mom “the gift of life”—meaning its product—for Mother’s Day.
The GreatCall Lively Wearable, which looks like a wristwatch, doesn’t allow you to speak through the device. Pushing the button places a call through your phone, which didn’t seem convenient to us, so we skipped it.
The LogicMark Freedom Alert is the rare medical alert that does not connect to a call center (and as such, has no monthly fee), and the rare medical alert for home use that allows you to have a conversation directly through the device. However, it requires a landline for use, and some patience to set up. The wearable portion of the device, a small walkie-talkie that can be worn around your neck or on your wrist, won’t blend in as well as the competition.
The Philips GoSafe is the priciest (and sleekest-looking) model that we tested. It comes with automatic fall detection included; there’s no way to opt out and pay a lower fee. The biggest drawback was the response time: It took up to two and a half minutes to be connected to the call center. Even sitting comfortably at a desk, that felt like an eternity.
The Bay Alarm Medical In-Home System is very similar to the LifeStation In-Home, but the version with cell service costs an extra $2 per month on a monthly plan. It was also silent for a long period of time when it was placing the call, leading me to wonder if the call had dropped.
The Bay Alarm Medical GPS Alert System has the clearest-sounding speaker system and the friendliest operators. Unlike much of the competition, I never strained to hear what the person on the other end was saying or felt like I was about to be hung up on. However, it’s advertised as just a mobile system; you’re not meant to use it at home. Though we like that Bay Alarm Medical admits that the GPS will not be that accurate if you’re stationary (many services could do a better job highlighting that the GPS isn’t always accurate), we don’t feel comfortable recommending a device for use against its intent. Also, this device can’t go in the shower.
The Medical Guardian Mobile Guardian is likewise advertised as just a mobile system. It consists of two devices: one a small button that you wear around your neck or wrist, the other a unit with a speaker and a microphone the size of a deck of cards that you put in your pocket. You need to be within 350 feet of the deck-of-cards device for the smaller button to work. Carrying around the separate pocket device was inconvenient and didn’t offer enough upside to justify the nuisance of remembering to carry around two devices for most people. Though the smaller button was nicer to wear around the neck than a larger device, the black lanyard is still noticeable and calls some attention to itself.
LifeStation Mobile with GPS uses the same hardware as the Premium Guardian for their mobile device (the finishes are a little different). The problem is we didn’t realize this until the device arrived, and you have to contact the company directly to find out the costs. LifeStation also doesn’t instruct users to call customer service so they can walk you through the setup of the device and work out any issues the way Medical Guardian does. Neither lack of info online nor lack of proactive customer service are dealbreakers—but all other things being equal, we’d prefer to have them.
The Amazon Dot functions the same way as the Echo regarding safety features, and is nearly one-fourth the price. We don’t think Ask My Buddy alone will be useful enough for most people to justify buying a device just for that purpose; and we think most people will like the Echo better overall. However, if you want a little extra security on a budget, it’s a good option.
If you use Google Calendar to plan your life, and would enjoy being able to use Google Search with your voice, you might consider Google Home over Amazon Echo. The two devices are similar, though I found it a little harder to use Ask My Buddy with Google Home, which responded only to the precise wording “Hey, Google, ask my buddy to send help.” If I got the wording of the request slightly wrong, the assistant prompted me to set up the service from scratch, which was confusing. (Here’s our full guide to Google Home.)
(Photos by Michael Hession.)
There's ice cream in the freezer.