What You Need to Know When Considering a Medical Alert Device for Persons with Dementia

Last Updated: June 16, 2023


Today’s Medical Alert Devices

Remember the Life Call devices? They were for someone in a medical emergency to push a button and receive assistance. There were TV commercials for years with a woman saying, “Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” This is an example of a medical alert device called a Personal Emergency Response Service (PERS). Today these devices are still popular and widely used but have now become more advanced.

If you are a caregiver and need to occasionally leave someone who has dementia home alone, this is an important step if you want to dementia-proof your home. When your loved one has Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, leaving them alone can be particularly nerve-racking. You may consider a nursing home or memory care facility. These systems could be an option but it is possible to keep them safe at home and prevent wandering. This can be especially true in the early and middle stages of the disease. Currently, there are medical alert devices that allow for independence while being able to actively monitor someone.

Some might think a person with Alzheimer’s cannot manage these types of devices, but recent technological advances have made them easy to use. This means it can be as simple as wearing a watch, an increasingly popular option for families with a loved one who suffers from dementia and may be prone to falling and wandering.

 Did You Know? The American Association of Retired Persons recommends medical alert devices to all its members. The AARP advises that its members may be eligible for discounts when buying an alert system.


Fall Detection

Falls are the leading cause of injury in people over 65 years old, and someone with Alzheimer’s has an even higher likelihood to fall. Alzheimer’s disease is caused by the brain having a buildup of amyloid beta plaques. When this happens, a typical symptom is balance and movement problems. Other resulting issues can include impaired eyesight and hearing, which also affects one’s ability to move around safely without falling. As dementia progresses, it is normal for sight and hearing to worsen.

This is why fall detection is an important feature in medical alert systems. Your loved one will typically wear a special watch, bracelet, or pendant device. Sensors in the device read changes in motion and height, and can instantly detect a fall. The pendant devices typically have a large button to press to call for help or may be attached to a system that makes the call automatically. When considering which system works best for your loved one, the stage of the disease may be a consideration.

Relevance through the Stages of Dementia

A device with a call button for help is probably viable in the early stages of Alzheimer’s when a person is more capable of functioning. This is a judgment call based on observing your loved one, but it’s best to err on the safe side. The middle stages of dementia are when fall detection becomes more important because your loved one will probably be less lucid. Consider it extra protection accounting for the progression of the disease.


Wandering Alerts

Statistically, more than half of people with Alzheimer’s will wander. They will forget where they are going and become lost and disoriented. If your loved one is lost outside, the disease can make it impossible for them to ask for help. Mobile alert systems allow them to call for help with the push of a button. GPS (global positioning system) tracking is available in phones, jewelry, watches, and even shoe soles, but a PERS system provides more security and peace of mind. Remember that GPS tracking devices may require a little work, such as charging regularly, usually daily.

Relevance through the Stages of Dementia

In the early and early-middle stages of dementia, the system with the button to call for help is a good idea. An operator will answer, locate the caller on GPS, and use information in their system to give directions to get home safely.
You may want emergency alert technology for people in the middle-late and later stages. Some systems allow you to set a “home area” for places your loved one lives or typically visits. If your loved one goes outside the home area, a notification goes out and GPS allows for easy location.


Enhanced Medical Alert Devices (Beyond Wandering & Fall Detection)

Enhanced or advanced medical alert devices, also called home security monitoring systems, allow for comprehensive monitoring that enables you to keep tabs on appliances and medications.

Activity can be monitored remotely, normally via a smartphone. An important feature is that the lack of activity can be monitored. Enhanced devices can be set to notify you if your loved one has not moved for too long a time because someone who does not move enough during waking hours is at risk of infections or blood clots. Your loved one may be stuck, wanting to get up from a seated position, and unable to do so.

Enhanced systems can track or use the following:

– Movement within and around every room in a home, with smart detection to prevent pets from triggering false alarms.

– Opening and closing doors, including external facing doors, to prevent wandering.

– Fall detection with instant notification.

– Medication management through connected electronic pillboxes.

– Stove and oven sensors to detect unusual or prolonged usage.

– Two-way voice communication devices. These are available in many forms, watches, wall units, or buttons that can be placed or worn. They let caregivers communicate even as your loved one can not.

A more or less complete picture of your loved one’s activity can be created in real-time without compromising their privacy. Consequently, it makes it easy for a network of family members to receive alerts about unusual activity or stay up to date on whereabouts.


How Enhanced Medical Alert Devices Work?

Tiny sensors are placed throughout the home in key locations, such as on bedroom doors, bathroom and shower doors, and doors that open to the outside or into a garage. Other sensors are placed on a stove and in a specialized pill dispenser. And the individual wears a sensor, usually a discreet pin or pendant, for reading movement. Information is transmitted through the home internet connection or a cellular network (in case of power outages). Email or text alerts are sent via a downloaded app to the included family and friends.

Relevance through the Stages of Dementia

Enhanced medical alert devices are relevant through all stages of dementia. Utilizing available technology enables the support of your loved one while respecting their privacy. This is a crucial benefit for caregivers and families to know someone is healthy and safe. If your loved one remains at home, advanced devices are a smart investment that addresses the symptoms of dementia by monitoring one’s safety. While there are numerous devices available, each stage of dementia has enhanced medical devices that offer support for your loved one’s challenges while ensuring their safety.


Enhanced Medical Devices and Stages of Dementia
What is needed at this stage? Examples of Enhanced Medical Devices that are Helpful
Early Stage Dementia Normally at this stage, there are not a lot of symptoms. The first symptoms are normally confusion and forgetfulness so minimal monitoring is needed. – Emergency necklaces or buttons. These are devices that call buttons for help.
– GPS tracking. In the event of forgetting how to get home, these let families find their loved ones fast.
Middle Stage Dementia


In addition to increased confusion and memory problems, balance, movement, eyesight, and hearing become a problem. Also, communication and judgment are affected. – Fall Detectors so you know when your loved one falls.
– GPS Trackers. Track their movements in and out of the house.
– Stove and oven sensors to detect unusual or prolonged usage.
– Medication Management. This is done through connected electronic pillboxes.
– Door and Window Sensors that prevent wandering and alert to one’s whereabouts.
Late Stage Dementia At this stage, falls and mobility are severe problems. The changes in the brain cause communication, judgment, and cognitive ability to break down. – Fall Detectors. These senses when someone has fallen.
– Wandering Devices. These can alter you if your loved one is outside their “home area” and enables you to also find them quickly.
– Bed and Chair Alarms to know when they are moving around without help.
– Two-way voice communication devices. These are available in many forms, watches, wall units, or buttons that can be placed or worn. They let caregivers communicate even as your loved one can not.



Other Medical Alert Features Relevant for Dementia

Default Activation

If a fall is detected, or the person goes outside a home area, the device automatically notifies either a caregiver or service provider. Emergency buttons are large and easy to push but someone with Alzheimer’s may forget what to do, even in the early stages. This feature allows the monitoring service to proactively contact the device wearer and their emergency contacts.

Non-Emergency Response / Sequential Contacts

Devices should include fail-safes in case a person with dementia sets them off when there is no actual emergency. For example, with fall detectors it is normal to wait between 20 and 30 seconds before registering a problem to be sure a person has actually fallen. And the medical alert service should have a non-emergency contact who reaches out prior to alerting family and first responders.

Cellular Network Coverage

Many alert devices work with a home phone line or local WIFI network. Because they partly serve to detect wandering, the device needs to reach beyond that home range, usually done via a cellular phone network. Medical alert devices that are only landline-based generally have a range from 400 to 1,000 feet.


It’s important that the medical alert device feels comfortable, and is even better if it is not felt at all. This is advantageous so it serves its purpose and does not get removed. Wearable options include bracelets, wristwatches, and pendants that are worn on a lanyard or clipped to a belt or waistband.

Water Resistance

The wearable device should be water-resistant because the ability to have it handy while bathing or showering is important. Thousands of injuries occur from falling in the bathroom every year; seniors are a large percentage of this demographic. Some devices can be worn for short showers, but if your loved one takes baths, you will want to invest in better water resistance.

Free Trials or Money-Back Guarantees

Finding the best medical alert system is vital, and it varies from person to person. This means you may need to try more than one before finding the ideal answer. A free trial period or money-back guarantee lets you try it without the stress of feeling “stuck” with something that does not fit your loved one’s needs.

Ease of Use

Seniors, especially those with dementia, can find it challenging to learn new technology. It is extremely important that the device is easy to use. Manufacturers know this but double-check before investing in a system.

Battery Life

This is an important feature that is easy to forget. Some devices require charging on a daily basis. This can be inconvenient, especially if your loved one lives alone. Batteries in the devices vary, normally ranging from a week of life to as long as a month.


Cost of Medical Alert Systems

The devices and accompanying systems are usually paid for through monthly fees that include the cost of monitoring. A typical price ranges between $20 and $50 per month. The price escalates depending on your needs. Running the system through a land-based phone line is a little cheaper than cellular service, and GPS tracking and fall detection will usually cost between $5 and $10 more per month.

Medical alert systems have been demonstrated to save money long-term because they decrease the number of hours of home care your loved one may require to stay safe.


Medicare & Medicaid Coverage of Medical Alert Services


Even though there is consensus that these systems are necessary for seniors with dementia, Medicare typically does not cover the costs. It is possible that Medicare Advantage, which partners with private insurers to deliver more customized options, could help pay for a system, but it is not a guarantee and you will have to check with your loved one’s insurance provider.



Medicaid will pay for medical alerts (Personal Emergency Response Services or PERS, in Medicaid-speak) for people with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. Keep in mind that Medicaid will only pay for the most basic of models and services. The enhanced medical alert services mentioned above would probably not be covered by Medicaid. An exception to this is if the beneficiary is receiving Medicaid benefits under a Consumer-Directed Medicaid HCBS Waiver. With this program, beneficiaries are permitted to decide which goods and services they need. If a family determines the more feature-rich medical alert service would be beneficial, they have the option to spend the extra money from their care budget.