Additional material in new edition

New chapter: Added 7 January 2022


I turn now to a topic which is much neglected but of considerable practical importance: What happens if your sufferer has a fall or other accident and you are not right next to them to assist? Here's a tale that ought to be true, but unfortunately it isn't.

NASA was busily blasting Americans into space in the Apollo missions when they came up against a big problem. The ink pens which they were using wouldn't write in zero gravity, so they spent millions of dollars of tax payers' money on trying to find a substitute which did function properly, until one fine day the Russians offered to let them try out the item of equipment they employed themselves, namely, a pencil. So we all duly fall about laughing at the pen-pushers (appropriate term, that) keenly avoiding the blindingly obvious and rushing headlong up the nearest and most expensive blind alley. Except, there is just one thing which spoils a perfectly good story. It isn't true.

You will find the full details of what really happened online in a Scientific American article published on 20 December, 2006, which underlines the consideration that pencils (a) could be hazardous in space, with bits of lead and sharp fragments of wood floating round the capsule and (b) they were a fire hazard, and after the disastrous conflagration of Apollo 1 during launchpad testing they did not want that repeating. It seems that in the end NASA did develop a working pen, or rather a commercial company did so for them, and the resulting product was also used by the Russians. At which point, you may be asking yourself what on earth this has to do with helping a sufferer who experiences an emergency of some kind who is out of immediate contact with the carer. In my wife's case, that would usually involve having a fall as a result of Parkinsons causing dizziness and lack of balance.

Now we get to the heart of the matter. What is the best means of managing this situation? Do you need a high-tech pen or a basic pencil? Or both? In answering the question, I am going to get into all kinds of trouble with local authorities and the answer to the problem I encountered. But it is an issue which sorely needs to be addressed head on for the sake of the sufferer.

The approach I was offered was called the community alarm. This system is long in the tooth and pretty clunky, and consists of a largish button worn either on the wrist or round the neck. A unit near the main landline telephone input cable sits monitoring the button. Press the alarm and the unit dials up central control and a voice asks if the user is OK, and if not, what help is needed. It's at this point that the first issue arises.

The main unit sits on a sideboard next to the landline input to the house. Let's assume that the sufferer is lying on the floor of a distant bedroom, having slipped and done an unknown amount of damage to themselves. This means that the victim has no way of communicating the nature of the problem with the monitoring controller which the local authority had installed, or responding that they have inadvertently pressed the button by mistake, which can happen, believe me.

Assume that the sufferer is within shouting distance of the control box, what happens next if a callout is required? The next assumption is that a vehicle with trained responders is sitting within reasonable distance of the emergency caller.

The next supposition is that the responders can gain access to the house when they get there. All that depends on the system not being offline because of a power cut, a not infrequent occurrence here out in the sticks, and a key safe to which they know the code, and which the last carer to use it has remembered to return the key. If an ambulance is needed, valuable time has been wasted in the process.

No system will work perfectly all the time, as with every kind of accident or other request for assistance. Life is like that, but we should do everything reasonable to maximise the likelihood of a prompt response to any call for help.

I urge you to think long and hard about taking the appropriate precautions and to beware of local authority workers bearing gifts in the form of community alarms. I politely agreed to have one fitted, because Health and Safety, bless it, insisted on it being installed if they are to employ care workers attending the home. It lay quietly there, unused, until my wife entered the care home, at which point I courteously requested that the offending equipment should be removed.

I am not going to presume to tell you what precise steps you should take in emergency situations, simply to invite you to follow basic principles for your own security and peace of mind, and also that of your sufferer. Please remember two things: first, it is way beyond the scope of this book to test and evaluate all the options on the market, and, secondly, the technology is constantly evolving at a breakneck pace and it is for you to keep up to speed with those changes.

If you have an Alexa device or similar, for example, a whole variety of options is available for home security and personal protection, and they keep evolving merrily away. Many of these are rolled out first in the USA and only later in other countries. Remember that Alexa or her equivalent are also available on mobile phones.

Then there is a simple wristband I noticed online called Buddi which incorporates a motion sensor so that it can determine whether the sufferer is falling, and it then informs your mobile phone of the potential accident. That is just one option amongst many which may be worth considering.

Now I will get into more trouble, this time with the sellers of smart phones. If you cannot or will not afford to dish out the grandkids' inheritance on a mobile phone, do scour the market for a less expensive option which still does all the fancy stuff of SMS, taking high resolution pictures, going on line, apps and so forth. Oh, yes, and it allows you to make and receive telephone calls. My point is that I was in this situation and managed to purchase a new phone with all those features for less than a hundred pounds.

So spend some time trawling the internet before making your choice, remembering that in this day and age technology is cheap and you do not have to stay committed to one particular solution.

Remember too that the sufferer is fragile and forgetful, and will become increasingly so, and as a result you should make the response to an emergency, real or imagined, as straightforward as possible.

Also, when you arrive on scene, as they say, take a few moments to assess the situation. I have got into terrible bother more than once by telling my wife that, no, her fall is not serious and that there is no need to call the Air Ambulance to deal with her situation. Besides, the farmer across the road would not take kindly to his winter wheat being crushed and trampled in the process.

An hysterical and disproportionate reaction to a minor tumble, for example, is not unusual, and some time spent comforting and assuring the sufferer that no bones are broken and bruising will be minor or undetectable is well worth the effort.

The options I decided on, starting out in the days before most of the technology I have described came on to the market, were to ensure, as far as it was possible, that her mobile phone was charged and with her at all times. She used a rollator to facilitate her mobility round the house, so it was necessary to ensure that the phone was in a pocket of the machine. As an aside, if you are considering a walker/ rollator for your sufferer, do go for one with a seat which enables them to rest and catch their breath and also helps them to clamber back up in the event of a fall.

Any solution to this problem of an alarm should have as few moving parts as possible. The question also arose as to what would happen if in the heat of the moment the sufferer forgot how to operate the phone or had not even remembered to carry it with her, and it is at this point (no pun intended) that the pencil solution came to mind.

I'm not a film buff, but one movie which really attracted me when I was nowt but a lad, as they say in Yorkshire, was Genevieve, a comedy based on the London to Brighton run for vintage cars. Apart from the catchy harmonica tune, the one sound which stuck in my mind was the sharp call of the old car horn, a simple device which was very strident and consisted of a rubber squeezable ball and a trumpet-shaped amplifier which could be heard for miles around. It sounded like a lady elephant in the pangs of childbirth. It also required zero electricity and connectivity to work. Nor did it need batteries.

I bought a handful of the bicycle version and actually screwed one onto the rollator. They could easily be audible from one end of the house to the other, and served very well in the cause of emergency communications. It was the simplest form of technology (if it even deserved the term), but it worked, and more importantly, it functioned in just about any crisis situation, perceived or real, even during a power cut.

Let's see if I can sum up from these brief excursions into the bells and whistles, so to speak, of sounding the alarm. Here are my do's and don't's for exploring solutions to security and emergency issues for the sufferer:

  1. Remember the carer first and foremost. Design your options around their needs, weak-nesses and capabilities, and do not work outwards from the technology. Ever.
  2. Use the minimum possible technological level to achieve your desired result.
  3. Adapt existing technology, like a mobile phone or Alexa, rather than a scratch-built new complex alternative, in which you may well find that design gets in the way of function, and fancy features obscure the intention.
  4. Never, repeat, never rely on just one option. Have at least two or more alternatives ready to hand for the sufferer to call on. There is no point, for example, in just having an emergency button stuck halfway up a wall if the sufferer, having fallen, can't reach it.
  5. Be flexible and adaptable. The technology you use today will soon be past its sell-by date, so be prepared to explore a new or up-to-date alternative.
  6. Involve the sufferer at all levels of acquiring and installing solutions. Never lose sight of the fact that the only reason you are considering all this is the safety and well-being of the sufferer, not your convenience or that of others. Remember, too, that the best of equipment is no use if it isn't being monitored or can't be accessed. And to use another of those US acronyms, KISS. Keep It Simple, Stupid. (Not you, of course.)

    Here's a cautionary tale to end with. A few years back, a product came on to the market which claimed to solve security issues caused by callers in your absence from the home, namely, a doorbell incorporating a video camera which could dial up your mobile phone and allow you to talk to the delivery driver or debt collector or whoever.

    To put it politely, these gizmos were sold at a premium price. As a result, a booming trade built up amongst the criminal fraternity who would no longer bother to break into the property in order to steal, they simply removed the video doorbell device itself and sold that on. And that rather defeats the object of the exercise.