I’ve fallen and I can’t Tweet: New tech solutions to elder care

August 10, 2011

An emergency stop button in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska March 19, 2011.  REUTERS/Lucas JacksonIt’s rare to find a person over 20 in the U.S. who’s not familiar with the expression “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.”

The phrase is used in an ongoing, decades-old advertisement from Life Alert Emergency Response, a company founded in 1987 that hasn’t really altered its phone-based, 24-hour emergency help for older folks. The service is still accessible via a button on a lanyard worn around the neck or on a wristband.

Not an iPhone app? Not a GPS tracker?

For years, companies have tried to improve upon the concept, but have not dented Life Alert’s market share. The company says it has more than 17,000 “grateful testimonials” and “[saves] a life from a catastrophe every 17 minutes.”

But with today’s aging population, families find themselves in need of more than just alerts of falling. Depending on where families reside, nursing homes can be expensive. A recent study from Genworth Financial showed that a private room in a New York nursing home this year could cost as much as $119,355 annually. In Massachusetts, it’s $125,925. And in Alaska of all places, it’s $227,760. So people are looking toward technology to manage elder care longer — and keep their older relatives safer — without breaking the bank or resorting to full-time nursing facilities.

And it’s not always just seniors who are looking for emergency contact services. Take Scott Tatum of Memphis, Tennessee, for example. One evening in May during storms and intense flooding, computer programmer Tatum, 44, was stuck in his car, facing down a tornado.

He went unharmed, but he was unable to check in with his family. Phone lines were down. His text messages wouldn’t go through. And he guessed that his parents would worry: All they knew was that heavy storms had begun after he left a family gathering.

So Scott made use of a free Web app called Life360 to message his family and send his GPS coordinates.

After the floods subsided, Tatum thought this Web app might also help keep track of his aging mother. At 70, she’s diabetic and tends to “lose her facilities” and sometimes fall when she has low blood sugar. So Tatum showed her how to use the app.

“All she’s got to do is hit a button to send a distress call and I can be there or my dad can be there,” he says.

Other services dig deeper into homes and lifestyles to provide support with in-home Web cams, GPS systems and even social networking.

One new service, Sonamba, can also help keep track of medicine reminders. The founder of the company, Ajit Pendise, developed a system to help him take care of his aging mother who lives overseas. What he came up with is a small device with a touch screen much like an iPad (or a Chumby) but with larger icons.

Family members can use it to send messages to each other, set reminders and keep track of schedules. It’s equipped with sensors that monitor motion and sound, and thus learn basic living patterns, and can send text alerts to family members if it sees anomalies, like Dad hasn’t turned on the TV when he usually watches “Judge Judy” at 5 p.m. like clockwork. It also has a separate emergency button for the wall or to be worn on the wrist.

“We wanted to build something that our parents would want to have in the home,” he says. “There are pictures, they can touch it, interact with it and send messages to everyone they want to. And they don’t have to wear anything around their neck.”

That’s one reason why Marty Lee, 55, an engineer in Portland, Oregon, chose Sonamba for his mother-in-law.

A widow, his mother-in-law suffered a heart episode earlier this year and went into assisted living. But she wanted to move back home. So in June, she did. Now she’s alone in her house most days.

“We knew about Life Alert but we felt she needed something a bit more,” he says, “something to keep her in touch with us on normal days as well as during emergencies.”

Lee found that the Sonamba’s prices were comparable to Life Alerts’ – nearly $70 per month for top-of-the-line services.

“So we gave it a try and we’ve been happy with it,” Lee says.

Other technological solutions include:

Reflections Solutions offers a watch that monitors heart rate, skin temperature and locomotion. It’s built for older folks and automatically sends an alert through Sprint’s communications network when it senses that a person has fallen.

Bliss Healthcare takes monitoring to another level by offering what Pankaj Khare, the company’s founder and CEO, calls “continuous care.” It consolidates medical bills and health records, sets medicine reminders and advisories for in-home care providers and emergency services.

Kian Saneii, founder and CEO of Independa, started his company with similar ambitions to consolidate medical and emergency care for the elderly. “The way I saw it, there’s got to be something better than ‘I’ve fallen and I can’t get up,’” he says.

The unifying factor in all these new elder care services seems to be that while Life Alert represents a simple and useful product, today’s technology can take it further.

So what’s LifeAlert doing to compete?

It’s not an easy question to answer.

“Our competitors are trying to get as much information on us as possible,” says Heidi Nestor, assistant to the vice president of marketing at Life Alert. “They pose as reporters and police or emergency authorities in need of information.”

What’s their solution to this attempted infiltration?

“We don’t talk to anyone anymore,” she says. “We don’t share our knowledge or plans or anything that we’re doing. But I can assure you, we are keeping up with the times.”


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I definitely agree that technology has improved homecare for the elderly. I use an agency that offers ClearCare care management software and it has been fantastic. I was worried about leaving my mom, but with ClearCare, I am updated throughout the day on how things are going. I can see when she’s been medicated and fed, which gives me such peace of mind.

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The problem, I find, with many of these “senior” friendly tech things is just how much they cost in relation to the people who use them. The Sonamba is $600 plus accessories and plus another $50 or so for the monthly activation fee to use it. I’ve been researching the new, touchscreen senior computer for my grandparents and that’s still $600, but at least no activation. I guess for now they have to keep rocking the SVC senior cell phones I got them – they were only $15 and pretty bare bones, but I figured something was better than nothing. If some of this technology is ever able to get down to the level of SVC, then I think a lot of people could benefit.

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[…] “I’ve Fallen and I Can’t Tweet,” a post on the Reuters Money website, is an amusing play on the well-known commercial with the tagline, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” But the reality is that falls are serious for older people and having a way to notify someone, should that happen, is important. The company that’s behind that famous tagline is Life Alert Emergency Response, but there are others who have entered the field and who offer additional or different types of services including medicine reminders and heart rate monitors. Read the informative Reuters post to learn more. […]

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[…] http://blogs.reuters.com/reuters-money/2 011/08/10/ive-fallen-and-i-cant-tweet-ne w-tech-solutions-to-… Tags: blogs.reuters.com Tweet […]

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