(Click on above link to hear the “Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!” ad)
Life Alert’s commercial of an older woman, alone and calling out: “Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” is legendary. She’s on the floor of her home and appears helpless. If only she had a portable device by which she could contact others. In follow-up commercials, former US Surgeon General C. Everett Koop lent even more validity to the need for the product. Dressed in dour suit and sporting his trademark chin beard, he informed seniors he wore one, too. Considering his vaulted position–and demeanor–who’d argue with him?
But Life Alert’s not the originator of the famous line. That honor (and pop culture fame) rests with a company called Life Call that operated from the late 1980′s until the early 1990′s. The success of Life Call (and similar businesses) depended upon its main feature, a pendant worn around the neck. To some seniors, it must have resembled a scapular, the item some Catholics wear to encourage saintly protection. It’s my belief my mother confused the pendant with a scapular, since she was 88 years of age and a lifelong Catholic. In other words, she’d never realize the repercussions if she inadvertently pressed the pendant.
The monitoring company had trained her. A field rep. had gone to her home, signed her up, explained the program, set up the “talk capability” between the portable device and their company and showed her how to operate the pendant. When they left, they were doubtless confident they had yet another senior safely nestled in their net of security.
And I’m just as certain that when they left, Mom promptly forgot everything they discussed.
For some months, we (in her family) had been concerned about her living alone in her two-story home. She’d gotten more forgetful and we wondered: If she had difficulty (slipped, fell, or got confused), how would she get word to us? That’s why our older brother set up the appointment with the “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” people.
The day following her sign-up, she and I planned on going to an open-air festival in Providence. It was an annual jaunt for us where we picked up lovely artisan ware made by Rhode Island School of Design students, to give as gifts. She was supposed to come to my home, by 11:00AM.
At 10:50AM, police from her town called, asking: “Do you know where your mother is?” I panicked, believing one of my worst fears realized: “She’d been brutalized during the night and carted away!” But as we talked, I saw her car enter my driveway. I told the policeman, “There’s no problem; she’s arriving now.”
I heard a deep sigh on the other end. Then he told me what happened.
When no one answered the phone at her residence, police went to her home. Getting no answer to their calls, one lent his considerable weight (and shoulder) to the door, ripping it from its hinges. After searching and finding no older woman “down” inside, they went to neighbors who gave them my number. That’s how I got the call.
The wreckage was considerable: the door’s facing lay in shards; glass panels were smashed; debris was everywhere. I hired a locksmith (to replace and install locks) and oversaw carpentry work and painting which extended over a two-week period. While they completed the project, I stayed to supervise and slept at her house. It was too risky to leave her in confusion.
In retrospect, I know what happened. That morning my mother probably hit her chest, saying, “Oh, my….” (to something). That activated the pendant…sending an alert message to the monitoring company who called my mother to check on her well-being.
The problem? She’d gone out the door— to my house.
That’s how a fleet of emergency personnel arrived at her home. Oh, the plan worked perfectly, and everybody did their job. The only variable in the mix was my mother. That 88-year-old woman showed us all how one element can turn a perfectly reasonable plan into chaos.
In retrospect, Life Call may not have realized what they were taking on, arming thousands of the elderly with these devices. After all, they went out of business in the early 1990′s. But their camp ads, characterized by infinitely bad acting and hilarious interpretation, left a profound legacy that lived long in comedic satire of late night shows. Versions of these are happily available on UTube.
Today, Life Alert is the registered owner of both “Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up,” as well as the modified version: “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” It appears a thriving company, but then Biddy knows: “They no longer have my mother to contend with.”
(Suspect scapular appears to the right. Mom probably confused her new pendant with this. Here’s one from www.medjugorje.com)