Can Someone Make Mom Happy? 5 Years of Safety Wearables

03/21/2017 03:15 pm ET

Sigh. It’s hard to argue against a mother’s logic. Even when she’s in her mid-eighties. And so, my search for a simple tracker to keep mom safe in case of an emergency has been going on for five years. Nothing has passed Mom’s litmus test.

I know that I’m not alone in my quest. Forty-two million Americans identify themselves as caregivers and they need tools to help. It's not the hardware that’s the deal breaker as much as the complexities of the Internet of Things, customer support, and the fragility of these immature companies that are foiling us.

Learning the Hard Way

Five years ago, I bought the Freedom Alert. At the time, it was a simple pendant that communicated with a base station. It was only suitable for indoor monitoring. No activation costs, no monthly fees. The base station hooked into a phone line jack. (The phone line identified your location.) Step one was to enter the phone numbers for each member of the family to be contacted in case of an emergency into the base station. When the distress button was pressed, the Freedom Alert dialed each number until it made contact. If it failed at that, it defaulted to calling 911. And, it turns out that if you’re not in your local area code when it dials it doesn’t add in the prefix “1”.

So, imagine this: Our entire family was out of town together on holiday. I figured it was a good time to give my parents this gift. We set it up to dial each of us, but because we didn’t enter a “1” for out of area calling, the Freedom Alert dialed “911” instead and dispatched a police car before we could troubleshoot our system. We dialed 911 again and explained it was a technology error. Dad declared it the worst gift ever and made me take it away.

Personal Emergency Systems

Next came the Great Call 5Star Transponder (which has since been replaced by Lively Mobile). A small square-sized unit the Transponder promised to keep mom and dad safe inside and outside the home. Billed as a personal emergency system (PERS) the Transponder acted like a walkie-talkie communicating via mobile networks with Great Call’s trained support staff. There was a cost for the unit and a monthly cost for the service. Because the unit had a built-in GPS tracking system it could pinpoint my Dad’s location anywhere. And, the support staff knew how to handle “elder care” and emergency situations. We had filled in a complete list of my parents’ doctors, medications and family contacts. The $20 a month service seemed like a bargain for the peace of mind.

But, after Dad passed away I called to change the account to Mom’s name and put the Transponder in her name. Somehow the account transfer was never recorded. When the unit malfunctioned and mom called the company she was addressed as my Dad. She found it terribly upsetting. The Transponder was getting old, not holding a charge and costing us $20 a month, so after the upset we agreed to toss it.

Passive Sensors

Moving on we purchased the Lively system. Great Call has since acquired Lively and is shifting the focus to a smart watch, but at the time Lively consisted of a base station with a bunch of externally located sensors that detected and reported movement to the base. The idea was to place the sensors throughout the house – bathroom door, coffee pot, front door, fridge, etc. Based on rules I created using the back-end software, Lively knew it had to monitor Mom’s activities and send me a text if there was something out of the ordinary to report.

Lively was a first in that it was truly passive. Mom didn’t have to wear anything or remember to charge anything. The reality was more like a comedy of errors. I set up the back-end software and asked mom to stick the sensors next to the designated areas we decided to monitor. But Mom, accidentally put the bathroom door sensor on the fridge. From day one I was getting text messages that mom was using the bathroom quite frequently. I called and tactfully asked if she’d been having stomach problems. “No,” she said, “Why?” I explained how Lively told me things like when she didn’t take her pills or didn’t open the fridge door by 9 a.m. Once she understood the degree that her life would be monitored she demanded we remove Lively from her life, too.

Jewelry for Emergencies

Starting to get the idea? The next victim was a gorgeous bracelet from Wisewear. Wisewear ushered in a new era of wearable tech that worked by communicating with your smartphone. The stunning metal bracelet served as a fitness tracker, a communications alert for incoming messages and text, and a panic button to alert your specified friends and family in an emergency. I thought she’d love it because by now she had an iPhone and it didn’t look like a clunky “I fell down” button. She felt differently (and I was out $200.)

For Mom, it meant having to keep two devices charged and paired. It meant that every time she got an email or call her wrist would vibrate. (The bracelet emits different vibrations signifying different events (mail, call, text) depending on how you’ve set it up. To send a distress signal you need to have your smartphone close by and turned on. You need to flip your wrist so that the bottom of bracelet faces up and then tap. Here are the company’s instructions:

1. Rotate your wrist, so the bottom portion of the bracelet (with black box and crystal) faces directly up.

2. The LED light in the crystal will display RED and the bracelet will vibrate once, indicating that your bracelet is in the arming position.

3. Keep your wrist at this position until the light turns GREEN (about 2 seconds). The bracelet is now ARMED.

4. While the GREEN light is on, tap your bracelet repeatedly in any position to trigger the distress message. The bracelet can be held at any position while you are tapping.

5. Your bracelet will blink red and vibrate continuously for 30 seconds to confirm that Distress Mode has been triggered.

6. The WiseWear mobile app will inform you that you are currently in Distress Mode. (You may cancel out of the distress mode within 30 seconds by tapping Cancel on the bottom of the screen)

7. After 30 seconds, has elapsed, the distress text will be sent to your emergency contact(s).

Another deal breaker. Even after practice she concluded that in a state of panic she would never be able to get this to work and the bracelet would just “make her nervous”.

Our latest adventure in safety came from Wearsafe. Now, Mom would carry a small Bluetooth enabled tag that she could attach to her clothing or handbag. The tag paired with her smartphone. When pressed, the tag sends your GPS location and a text message to the contacts you specified through setup.

Setup requires that your contacts download the Wearsafe app and join your group. The cool thing? The tag let’s your contacts hear you talking or hear the sounds around you --- extremely helpful in emergencies. And since it just did one thing – locate you and tell your family – we thought it would be simpler than the bracelet.

We helped Mom download the app, pair the device, and invite us to be in her group. It all worked well. But as an iPhone user she had to remember to keep the app running in the background on her phone for her tag to be active. Again, she argued that having to charge two devices, remember her tag, and remember to turn her app on was too much. (In fairness, Wearsafe’s main demographic are young college women and runners.) We’re still trying to get our $5 monthly charge off the bill, which added insult to injury. It seems the iTunes store, not Wearsafe, are the only ones who can give a refund. Mom had already removed the app, can’t recall the password, and now, months later, we’re disputing the charge with Amex.

These devices are all well-intentioned and eventually someone will get it right. But as mom says, “By the time I figure out my networks, my paired devices, charged devices, codes and settings, I could be a goner.”

What about you? Had any luck with emergency devices? I’m still searching.

Robin Raskin is founder of Living in Digital Times (LIDT), a team of technophiles who bring together top experts and the latest innovations that intersect lifestyle and technology. LIDT produces conferences and expos at CES and throughout the year focusing on how technology enhances every aspect of our lives through the eyes of today’s digital consumer.

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