A friend of mine, a polio victim, spends a lot of his time in a wheelchair. He’s comfortable with his situation now, but only after having gone through much depression and angst. He still walks short distances using crutches. Another friend has walked with canes for most of her adult life after suffering an auto accident in which she broke her back. She struggled and struggled and through grit and determination, stayed out of a wheelchair for as long as she could, some 40 years after the accident. She now spends a lot of her time in a chair in order to get around more easily and without severe pain.

It’s alarming what both have told me about some of the differences they experience when they’re in their chairs versus on crutches or canes. And while I am certainly not comparing my injury- and rehab-time to their situation, I can totally understand when they complain about the people around them. I’ve been there and, as a result of back injuries, find myself at times unsteady on my feet. 

It’s astounding how unconscious people are. I’ve been with these friends in crowds, or even when we are just maneuvering down a street. When they are using their crutches or canes, they are terrified about being around other people. They don’t have much balance to begin with so the slightest bump can send them reeling. I know because I’ve been next to them. When we’re walking together, I often feel like a blocking back opening a hole in the defense. I’ve practically smashed into people walking briskly right at us who seem to have absolutely no regard for who’s in front of them. And I’m not just talking about people on their cell phones.

I have seen people crash into us; I’ve seen people almost knock my friends over; I’ve seen people stop short or crashing and then, almost incredulously, give them an evil stare as if to say, “How dare you impede my forward progress!”

There are so many times that there are people in need, those with clear signs of difficulty like people using canes, crutches, and wheelchairs. But there are also those with an infirmity that no one notices who may need a little assistance. Seniors especially are vulnerable. Many have mobility issues, others don’t see or hear well. And their balance, even if they’re not using a cane or walker, is less stable.

Really, folks, we all need to slow down, look around, and be much more aware of those who might need a little assistance or move a bit more gingerly. It’s not asking much – I’m not even asking that you stop doing what you’re doing to help. Often there’s no help needed. Maybe just a bit more patience. I’m just sayin’.

For several weeks I tested a new device called the Sonamba, a unique home monitoring system for caregivers. The system, built by Pomdevices, is designed to “keep seniors safe at home by keeping track of their daily activity, medication routines and appointments.” At first glance I would say that the system is everything it’s cracked up to be. As a boomer who went through the whole eldercare process with both my parents and inlaws, and as the author of the Baby Boomer’s Guide to Caring for Aging Parents, I can say that I wish this system was available years ago. I encourage those whose parents are living independently to investigate whether the Sonamba is right for you.

Pomdevices calls the Sonamba a “Wellbeing Monitoring System for seniors living independently.” Any unit claiming to be used for this purpose must be multi-purpose, and indeed, Sonamba is just that. At its basic level, it serves as a Personal Emergency Response system, complete with panic button that upon activation alerts caregivers and 911 via cellular connectivity. The button can be worn around the neck or on the wrist. It can also be mounted on a wall if appropriate.  Multiple units that are all coordinated can be placed in different rooms for those seniors who have greater mobility and often move around their house.

But Sonamba is much more than an emergency response system and, in fact, is a device that many of our parents can use. It serves as a medication and appointment reminder that the senior or the caregiver can easily program directly on the unit or remotely by computer. These reminders can include the specifics about upcoming appointments and which medications need to be taken and when. As an electronic reminder it can replace all those notebooks, calendars, and lists so many of our parents have. In my testing I programmed a few appointments and different meds, some to be taken just once a day, others multiple times. And each med was to be taken at different hours. As each designated hour came, the unit alerted me with a “ding” that was sufficiently loud and distinct for me to hear it in another room.  I was even able to hear it on another floor of my townhouse. The face of the unit showed the reminder on screen and listed which medication I needed to take, as well as how many pills if I chose to enter that information. The alert chimed every minute and if I did not take the medication (or rather, if I did not clear the alert), my caregiver would be notified, prompting a follow up. Since caregivers can check in on the unit remotely, my caregiver could also know when doctor appointments are scheduled and when medicine regimens change. One suggestion I had for the manufacturer was to provide a flashing light, not just a sound and a screen display. Many seniors are hard of hearing so a distinctive and highly visual cue is important. The manufacturer is looking at ways to include that functionality in their next version.

There are other excellent features of the Sonamba that are quite important, some of which are unique to this system. The system periodically sends status alerts to caregivers telling them whether all is well or that the built-in sensor noted unusual levels of activity in the coverage area. This level can be too much or too little, based on how much activity existed during a learning period of approximately one week. When I went out I simply pressed the “Away” button so the unit knew not to expect any activity. And when I returned I pressed the “Home” button to restart the monitoring.

The unit is extremely user-friendly and allowed me to type in brief messages to the caregivers I designated in the system. The unit has a touchscreen interface that works well using either my fingers or a separate stylus.

Physically, the unit looks very much like a desktop electronic photo frame and indeed, when the system is not operating as a monitor it shows a rotating photo album. I easily uploaded several of my personal pictures from my computer so having the unit on a table was a nice addition to the room.

As PomDevices says, the Sonamba is “designed to be a part of everyday living — empowering seniors as well as their caregivers to live life on their own terms.” I can easily see this device in our parents’ homes, allowing us as caregivers to know that meds are being taken correctly and that in an emergency we — and the paramedics — will be notified.