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Savvy Senio: Medical alert devices that can help keep seniors safe

I am interested in getting my mother, who lives alone, a medical alert device with a wearable SOS button that she can push in case she falls or needs help. What kinds of devices can you recommend and how much do they cost?

A. There's a variety of medical alert systems on the market that can help keep elderly seniors safe while living in their own home. Here's a breakdown of some different styles and prices.

Monitored alerts

The most popular medical alert systems available are the ones that will connect your mom to a 24-hour emergency monitoring service. These units come with waterproof "SOS" buttons -- typically in the form of a necklace pendent or bracelet -- and a base station that connects to her home phone line.

At the press of a button, your mom could call and talk to a trained operator through the system's base station receiver, which works like a powerful speaker phone. The operator will find out what's wrong and will notify family members, a neighbor, friend or emergency services as needed.

If you're interested in this type of alert, there are literally dozens of servicesavailable. One of the most widely used is the Philips Lifeline Medical Alert Service (lifelinesys.com, 800-380-3111), which costs $35 a month plus an $82 start-up fee. Phillips also offers a new Auto Alert option (for $48 a month) that has fall detection sensors in the SOS button that can automatically summon help without your mom ever having to press a button.

Some other major players in the industry that are a little less expensive (less than $30 a month) include: LifeFone (lifefone.com, 877-849-8942), LifeStation (lifestation.com, 877-478-3390), Bay Alarm Medical (bayalarmmedical.com, 877-722-9633), Alert1 (alert-1.com, 888-919-3692), LifeGuardian (lifeguardianmedicalalarms.com, 800-378-2957) and MedicalAlert (medicalalert.com, 800-800-2537).

One other unique product worth consideration is the MediPendant (getmedipendant.com, 888-216-0039), which runs less than $35 a month. This system allows your mom to speak and listen to the operator directly through the SOS pendant.

No-fee alerts

If you're looking for a cheaper option, consider a no-fee medical alert device. These products, which also come with an "SOS" button and a home base station, are pre-programmed to dial personal contacts (relatives, friends, caregivers or 911) if the SOS button is pushed. Most devices store about four phone numbers, and the system dials each number, one-by-one until a connection is made.

If you like this style, the Freedom Alert made by LogicMark (logicmark.com, 800-519-2419) is a good product that allows you to speak through the pendent. The purchase price: $300, with no ongoing monthly fees.

Mobile alerts

If your mom is interested in a device that works outside the home, there are several mobile products. These pendent-style devices, which fit in the palm of your hand, work like little cell phones with GPS tracking capabilities.

To call for help, your mom would simply push one button, and an operator from the device's emergency monitoring service would be on the line to assist her. And because of the GPS technology, they would know her exact location, which is critical in emergency situations.

Top products to check out in this category include the new 5Star Urgent Response sold by GreatCall (greatcall.com, 800-733-6632) for $50 plus a $35 activation fee and $15 monthly service fees, and MobileHelp (mobilehelpnow.com, 800-800-1710), which runs between $37 and $42 a month.

Jim Miller, a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of "The Savvy Senior" book, can be reached at Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070.

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