- Lisa Jevens
Checking in: Call services provide peace of mind
It's 11 p.m. and you forgot to call your mother — again. You wonder, did she take her medication on time? Is she OK?
If you are worried about someone who is alone with no one to check on them each day, there are call services that will do just that over the phone. Some services will also give reminders about doctor appointments or medication — and then report back to you that your loved one is OK.
Generally, there are two types of call services: those in which a live person makes the calls and those that are automated. Both types offer reporting systems that notify family members of the status of their loved one, via phone, email, text or a web portal. The goals are peace of mind, safety, and independence. Prices start as low as $15 per month for automated services.
Automated calls Paying someone else to call a family member may seem odd, but, "The reality is that most people do not call their parents every day, 365 days a year," says Paul Hammond, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who started Iamfine.com two years ago with his brother, Colin, who lives in England. Their mother lives alone in Florida, so time zones were a barrier to family communication.
In their effort to better care for her and others like her, the Hammond brothers designed a non-intrusive, simple automated system that calls once a day. The recipient simply presses "1" on the phone to check in, and then hangs up. Those who have opted into the recipient's "care circle" can receive an email that they are fine.
If the recipient does not answer the phone after a few tries, members of the circle are notified simultaneously. They can communicate among themselves whether they have seen the person that day, or choose to go check on them in person and report back to the circle. If the recipient won't be home at their call time, they can call the system and check themselves in at any time.
"It's targeted to people like myself — baby boomers with aging parents who live at home alone and are pretty functional," Hammond says. "It's not meant to replace the aid buttons that people wear."
After two years in business, Iamfine.com is making about 1,000 calls per day and nearly half of the customers who try the free trial eventually sign up.
Call services that employ a live person are more expensive, but they offer a human connection that can be a lifesaver, says Rose Toney, of We Check On You, based in San Francisco. Rates start at $50 per month.
As the owner of the business since 1997, Toney places some of the calls personally. She relates how one of her clients was wheezing during her daily check-in call. Toney, who is asthmatic, recognized the sound and suggested the client see her doctor immediately. "She did, and it turned out she had asthma," Toney says.
We Check On You also reminds clients of doctor appointments and gives medication reminders.
The social contact of one brief call can make a difference in someone's day who lives alone, Toney says. "The clients have always enjoyed being called by a live person. They may or may not have family, or may have outlived a lot of their friends," she says.
Joan Rawls, 81, has been using We Check On You for 12 years. She lives alone in an independent living apartment in Sacramento, California.
"It's pleasant to know that I'll have someone to talk to every day," she says, even if it is only for a few minutes. "My son lives in the area, and he is a very attentive but works peculiar hours that change all the time, so he doesn't think about it every day."
Rawls says she has appreciated the service more — particularly the medication and appointment reminders — as time has gone on. "Everyone I know has memory issues," she says.
SageMinder is another automated calling service that offers automated check-in calls, plus appointment reminders, and as many as four medication reminders throughout the day starting at $16.95 a month. It's based on the idea, supported by much research, that keeping doctor appointments and taking medication correctly goes a long way toward keeping older people out of nursing homes and emergency rooms.
Not only for seniors
Toney says her clients include people who are not elderly but have chronic conditions such as diabetes or disabilities, and live alone. "They are independent but want to make sure somebody knows they're OK," she says.
"Parents who have children going away to college for the first time out of state are using it for their kids," Hammond says of Iamfine.com. "People who live alone with pets use this. They are concerned with the welfare of their pets in case something happens to them. They will put neighbors in their care circle so they can come and take care of the pets."
Originally published in the Chicago Tribune Prime Time senior living section on September 12, 2014.