Adventures with ‘Alert’ Monitors
November 30, 2011
The necklaces made famous by those “Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” TV advertisements back in the ‘80s can seem like a brilliant idea. So simple, so inexpensive. Here, at last, is a way for Mom or Dad to maintain independence as they become frail: a button on the pendant allows you to call for emergency help 24/7.
Such devices, also known as PERS (Personal Emergency Response Systems) certainly can work fine. There’s just one catch. The fallen one has to press a button to signal for help. Sometimes, a fall can leave a person too disoriented to remember what to do. Other times, the very idea of asking for help is so disturbing that he or she simply refuses to press the alarm. “People quickly learn that if you call for help, the EMTs arrive with a lot of noise and commotion,” says Diane Mahoney, Ph.D., a professor of Nursing at Massachusetts General Hospital and an expert in sensor-based technology for caregiving. “It’s a bit of a stigma.
“We don’t have data on how frequently PERS-wearers choose not to signal for help when they need it,” she adds. “But there are plenty of examples of people lying on the floor all night until they’re discovered.”
Which brings us to Mildred Silver. Mildred is 91 and lives with her son Robert and daughter-in-law Alice in Los Angeles. She’s a bit on the frail side, having broken her ankle a year back. The ankle has been slow to mend, and Mildred uses a walker to get around. Because she’s alone much of the day while her son and his wife are working, her five children have convinced her to wear an “alert” monitor with a button to call for help if she needs it. The button is affixed to a pendant Mildred dutifully keeps around her neck at all times.
Unfortunately, though she’s fallen several times, she’s never actually pressed the button for help.
The first alarm-worthy incident in the Silver household took place a few years back—before Mildred moved in with Robert—and was related to me by her other son David. Back then, Mildred’s husband Sol was still alive, and they lived together in their own home. One morning, Sol slipped and fell outside as he was attempting to retrieve the mail. He pressed the button, but when the responder called their home, Mildred answered.
“Someone called for help,” the responder said.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Mildred. “We’re fine.”
“Could anyone else have signaled us?”
“No, my husband is right here. He just went out to get the mail,” she said.
The caller hung up. After a while, Mildred began to wonder what was taking Sol so long. She went outside and found him lying in the driveway. Friends would soon help him up and back into the house. (Note: names have been changed.)
Fast forward to last spring. Mildred is now a widow, and living with Robert. (David, who lives in San Francisco, frequently travels to LA to pitch in with caregiving duties.) David tells the story: “One day she is alone in the house. She is cold—she’s often cold indoors—and she decides to go outside for some sun.
“Slowly she works her way out front with her walker, navigating a step that, for her, is the equivalent of a 20-foot wall. After sitting for a while in the sun, she decides to go look at a rosebush we’d planted in the garden as a memorial to Dad. She loses her balance and falls backwards into the flower bed. She’s unharmed, but can’t move.”
This would be the perfect opportunity to use her PERS system. But Mildred does not do that. She simply remains in the garden, lying on her back.
It’s not long, no more than 20 minutes, David estimates, before a car miraculously pulls up into driveway: “Some guy steps out with a clipboard in his hand. He starts to walk toward the front door, and notices the bottom half of my mother sticking out of the flower bed.”
The man walks up to her and says, “Excuse me, I’m taking a survey and I wonder if you’d have a few minutes to answer some questions.”
Mildred, who’s hard of hearing, asks him to repeat himself, and finally gets his drift. She answers, “Young man, right now that would be hard, because I’ve fallen down. What you need to do is help me get back on my feet.”
Incredibly the man replies, “Would you mind first answering my questions?’
She tells him he’d certainly better help her up immediately or there will be trouble.
The man obediently puts his clipboard down and helps her up—following precise instructions on where and how he is permitted to touch her. They get her in front of her walker and together, they move slowly back to the house.
It’s slow going. It probably takes 10-15 minutes, David figures, to get her across the threshold and into a comfortable chair.
“By this point, Mom is exhausted,” says David. “But, incredibly, the man pulls out his clipboard and says, ‘Now, about those questions…’”
Mildred is not one to mince words. She invites him to am-scray.
When David and his siblings first learn what had happened, they are incredulous. For all the strangeness of the incident, everyone agrees the universe had been kind to Mildred that day.
But, still, why didn’t she just push the darn button?
Steve Slon, the former Editor of AARP Magazine, blogs for “The Connected Caregiver” at http://www.beclose.com.