Calling Device Is Serious Answer For Seniors Living Alone

October 23, 1991|By June Kurtz | June Kurtz,Contributing writer

An elderly woman tumbles down a long flight of stairs and lies helpless at the bottom. There is no one to help her up.

The commercial has become the subject of jokes on late-night television, spawning imitations of the old woman calling out, "I've fallen and I can't get up," but for many seniors who live alone, there is nothing funny aboutit.

So they've taken some precautions, including leasing Lifeline, a medical alert system similar to the one depicted in the commercial.

"It's not funny," said Kim Long, Lifeline's manager. "This is an older person's last resort before (family members) have to stick them in a nursing home."

If a senior is injured or is having a medical problem, help is summoned immediately at the touch of a button on the device, which can be worn around the neck or wrist.

"I'm not helpless," said M. Louise Walkling, 79, who lives on a little farm near Smallwood. But, she said, "I'm here by myself and I need something.

"I just feel a little safer when I have it on," said Walkling, addingthat she has heart trouble and high blood pressure. "You can punch it, and they'll respond right away."

Hilda S. Kiser confines herself to the first floor of the two-story Taneytown house she's called home for the last 35 years. For the past two years, the 90-year-old hasused a walker to get around.

"I don't go off the place hardly," Kiser said. "I stay behind locked doors day and night.

"My biggest concern is that the doctor's so far away," she said. "I thought (Lifeline) would be some protection."

Some alarm companies also offer medical alert devices.

Alarm Pro-Tech Systems, which operates out of Westminster and Owings Mills, has about 14 devices leased in Carroll County, said owner Terry T. Weant of Taneytown.

The alarm company charges $225 for installation of the device, which is connected to a phone line, and leases it for $25 a month.

Currently, 75 county seniors lease Lifeline, which costs $30 a month, Long said. The company charges no installation fee.

While the device can be costly, Kiser said it's worth the price.

"I wouldn't want to give it up," she said. "You wouldn't if you ever needed to use it."

But Marge E. Fastner, who has been living by herself for 35 years, said Lifeline payments would not fit into her meager budget.

"How many people on Social Security can afford that kind of money?" asked the 73-year-oldWestminster resident. "It's too expensive."

If she had the money,Fastner said, she probably would use Lifeline.

"I'm alone. I'm not scared or anything, but it's important," she said. "If anything should happen to me someone should know."

Instead, Fastner joined Operation Alert, a free program of the Carroll County Bureau of Aging, done in cooperation with the post office.

Currently 16 county seniors are part of the program, said Brenda Lerner, the bureau's Community Services Program coordinator.

Participants are given a marker for their mailboxes, and if the senior's mail is not picked up daily, the mail carrier alerts the post office.

The post office calls the bureau, where emergency contacts are notified.

M. Alice Engel, 82,scoffed at the idea of using Lifeline.

"One of those crazy thingsyou wear around your neck?" Engel said. She said she prefers Operation Alert, which she says doesn't inconvenience anyone.

"I don't need to think about it, and nobody else has to," said Engel, who joineda year ago. "It's a perfectly excellent system. Nobody needs to worry about it unless there's mail in the box."

Engel, who never married, does not mind living alone.

"When you spend your life mostly watching out for yourself, anything that comes, you take in stride," said Engel, a retired nurse. "I don't feel like I'm living alone. I'vegot the world's best dog."

However, a pet can be costly, and animals need care, Fastner said.

"Now that I don't have small childrenI want to be free to do what I want," she said. "I just don't like to be tied down."

Another free program the Bureau of Aging offers people who live alone is Phone-A-Friend. The senior is paired up with a volunteer, who agrees to call routinely.

Vicki J. Foster, a volunteer in the program, said she has called a senior for about two years.

"She's not what I expected, mainly because she has quite a bit of family," said Foster, a Hampstead resident. "They keep pretty goodtabs on her."

Nonetheless, Foster calls the senior around 4 p.m. five days a week.

About six seniors are receiving calls, Lerner said.

"We have had very little response," Lerner said. "There are a lot of people who need it; maybe they just don't think they need it. (Maybe) they don't want people to know that they're alone."

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