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Cordless Phones: A new tool for stabilizing the unstable elderly

E. A. Stead Jr

March 17, 2004

I am 95 years old and live in a 5 room, 2 bathroom house with no stairs. When I rise from a sitting or lying position to answer one of my 2 phones, I am very unsteady for a few minutes, and I am afraid that I may fall. This condition may be caused by postural hypotension, a fall in arterial blood pressure, or by a stiffening of the muscles which occurs when they are not used. I do not have postural hypotension.

For many years as Chief of Medicine at Duke, I observed the care and management of the elderly. One of the more frequent injuries found among those whose age is greater than 85 is hip injury. The hip is often fractured as a result of a fall, associated with moving from one position to the bathroom. This is such a reproducible situation that for many years I tried to invent a restraint that would break the fall. My engineering friends never found a satisfactory solution.

The elderly are often alone and the telephone is a means of maintaining communication with their few remaining friends. I enjoy using the phone for communication and without it, I am totally isolated. Now I am faced with a problem, not associated with visiting the bathroom but with walking from wherever I am to the telephone. I want very much to reach the phone before the caller gives up on me. This time, my engineering friend said "not to worry".

There is a new technology available, inexpensive cordless telephones, which can be placed everywhere I wish. These phones use a small radio transmitter and receiver to replace the wires typically used to connect phones. Although they are portable, the feature I depend on is being able to place them anywhere I might find myself during the day. I might have one set of locations for spring and summer months and other set of locations for fall and winter. I have identified 10 places including the vanity in the bathroom, my bedside table, two on a table in the living room, each next to a chair where I usually sit and one on a table between two chairs where I might sit. With a phone at each place where I spend time reading or writing or thinking, I have reduced the time to answer a ringing phone from 15-20 rings to 2 rings. I have removed the fear of falling and I have confidence that I shall answer the phone before the caller gives up on me.

In addition to my difficulty with rapidly standing and walking, I am increasingly clumsy. I can easily push the cordless phone and its battery charger on to the floor. My daughter and son-in-law solved this problem very creatively. They bought some large 5"x5" tiles to stabilize the base. With velcro strips, they attached the base of each phone to a tile. Now I am safe from both my clumsiness and my difficulty in rapidly achieving a stable standing position.

Because I have been concerned about the health care I have thought about the relative costs of cordless phones and treatment of fractured hips. The cordless phones cost about $30/phone at Radio Shack or Costco. My engineer has 3 phones at a cost of $100. I have 10 phones at a cost of $300. Were I to fall and fracture my hip, I am guessing that the cost of treatment would approach $20,000.

There are only a few times that we can intervene in our own care in a manner that produces such huge cost savings. If we spread the cordless phone message to the elderly, I suspect that we could dramatically reduce the cost of one aspect of their care, reduce the anxiety among attending family members and bring a sense of confidence to the elderly about managing their own affairs.

And just to let you know that I still have an active imagination and can learn new tricks, I did a Google image search on cordless phones. To my surprise, I found that the US Government Consumer Product folks are recommending cordless phones as an inexpensive way to childproof your home. This is just a reminder that repetition is the first law of learning and without repetition, you will fall victim to the forgetting curve. If you are not familiar with the Google image search then here is an opportunity to acquire a new tool. You can clearly observe that even at 95, Google can extend my memory and provides new opportunities for just-in-time learning.

Eugene A. Stead, Jr.

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