How to set up an 'emergency email' system for an older relative?
August 18, 2007 2:44 PM   Subscribe

Help me find a program that can send an 'emergency email' at the click of a button/doubleclick of an icon, for a older relative with dialup internet access who lives alone.

My dad lives alone and is just over 70 years old. He had a laryngectomy (the operation that removes your voicebox and leaves you with a hole in the throat and a prosthetic device that needs to be manually depressed in order to talk, a la Ned from South Park) a couple of years ago. He has dialup internet access and lives a little too far away from me (7,471 miles, give or take) for me to get to him quickly. He does, however, live near several people that can help out if he takes a tumble, but I am envisioning a situation where he may have stumbled, hurt himself and be unable to move too far or talk (remember, the prosthesis needs to be pressed with a finger in order to work, meaning that phone calls require both hands since he does not have a headset).

Is there a way to set up something such as an icon on his desktop (shaped like a red triangle with an exclamation mark in it, etc) that when doubleclicked will dial up his internet and send an "emergency email" to one or more email addresses (such as a cellphone email as we have in the US) so people can get notified immediately if he is in distress? Shareware, freeware, or some sort of macro/scripted magic would be fine. Option to post a quick comment in the email would be fine too, as would any other creative suggestions which achieve the same basic goal. Windows XP. Freeware solution preferred.
posted by tra to Computers & Internet (21 answers total)
This is exactly what LifeAlert and similar medical alert systems are for. I understand you're trying to do this cheapwise, but when it comes to someone's health and life, I would never trust to an injured elderly man's ability to crawl over to a computer, get a good view of the screen, and operate a mouse to double-click on an icon.
posted by Tomorrowful at 2:57 PM on August 18, 2007

I am envisioning a situation where he may have stumbled, hurt himself and be unable to move too far or talk
He may not be able to get to a computer, turn it on if it's not on already, manage the mouse, find the icon to click - or even be coherent enough to accomplish such a task if he's hit his head. A medical alert system seems like a complete no-brainer here - around his neck, one press of a button. Done.
posted by meerkatty at 3:06 PM on August 18, 2007

Sorry, these solutions are way out of my price range.
posted by tra at 3:17 PM on August 18, 2007

Then perhaps just a pre-paid cellular handset and a whistle? He could carry both, and in the worst case just hit speed-dial and the whistle into the phone. As long as the people he was calling knew that receiving a whistle call was the emergency signal, they could then go to his aid. It would be just as informative as the computer email (I need help), and more portable as well.
posted by procrastination at 3:25 PM on August 18, 2007

procrastination's solution seems like a good one to me. And it's not hard to find a phone with a speakerphone option, which could allow him to be able to make an emergency call one-handed.

Plus, any phone - even one with no minutes at all, and on no plan - will dial 911.

In the end, I honestly can't imagine many realistic scenarios that could leave someone capable of getting to and operating a computer, but not able to dial 911, or use a cell-and-whistle system, etc.
posted by Tomorrowful at 3:32 PM on August 18, 2007

I had an elderly relative who absolutely refused to wear a LifeAlert. But she was persuaded to get in the habit of carrying her portable phone wherever she went, bathroom, etc. So, when finally she fell and couldn't get up, she was able to dial 911. She would not have been able to get to the computer.

If your dad can be persuaded to do this, it ought to work. Once you dial 911, somebody responds, whether you can talk or not. And given the distance (and the fact that you may not be reachable 24/7), he really should dial 911 first.

Beyond that, you have the scenario of a stroke or heart attack in which the person falls but can't dial OR push some kind of button OR send that email. For an elderly person living alone, a daily "are you OK" call is a basic precaution against that. Some of the LifeAlert-type options may have fancier monitoring, but if you can't afford 'em, at least make sure someone calls him every day.
posted by beagle at 3:37 PM on August 18, 2007

The catch with a cellphone is that it probably won't provide responders with a location. With a landline, just dialing 911 will get people to you whether you can speak or not. A quick google turned up this, and there are probably other, cheaper options.
posted by sgass at 3:53 PM on August 18, 2007

most cell phones now have to comply with e911--that is, provide tracking information to 911. check with your provider.

alternatively, you could get a prepaid cellphone and program the friends into the speed dial. then he could just text them.
posted by thinkingwoman at 3:59 PM on August 18, 2007

Yes - I would say: cheapy cellphone handset (eg Nokia Shorty) with pre-pay plan (Virgin offers some that are about $15/mo). It can be set up with a few phone numbers to dial, and the relevant people can be informed that if they get a call that is all "beep beep beep" touch-tone noises, that it's your dad.

The email solution relies on him being mobile enough to get up to the computer, and on other people checking their email relatively often (eg what if he sends the email but nobody gets it for 12-24 hours). If you feel ok about this, you could show him Twitter; you could keep track of his Twitter stream and if something goes wrong he could send a message saying "help" or even just any single key repeated (eg GGGGGGGGGG)-- really typing this won't be harder than opening program, clicking with mouse.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:10 PM on August 18, 2007

Ah - her portable phone . That is, the landline (which gives 911 the location), but a wireless receiver.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:12 PM on August 18, 2007

er, "receiver" should have been "handset"
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:14 PM on August 18, 2007

Prepaid Virgin Mobile plans are a lot cheaper than $15/month; with a credit card on auto-feed-the-minutes, it costs $15 every 90 days to keep the account alive. You can also do it without a credit card on file by purchasing minutes via scratch-off cards sold at just about any convenience or grocery store, the minimum quantity on the cards is $20. Either way, unused minutes accrue, there's no maximum limit on rolled over minutes (my account has something like 300 minutes on account, accrued over 4 years). The VM phone I have (a Kyocera) also has something called a GPS locator built in, though I haven't gotten lost badly enough to know if it works well enough for 911 to find me.

The email idea has too many points of failure to rely upon as a sole solution.
posted by jamaro at 4:34 PM on August 18, 2007

Right, LobsterMitten, portable phone tied to land line. No need for a cell phone. (Funny how we jump to cell phone solutions, forgetting the old standby.)
posted by beagle at 4:49 PM on August 18, 2007

In any case, emergency email is a bad idea. I don't know how 'immediate' an email really would be.

Um, if his life really is in risk or something, there must be some program -- either a charity or the govumint -- that will be able to help you out. At a minimum, I would talk to his doctor about options. Also, there may be a local number for support for the elderly. They may be able to offer tips.

There are cellphones that are set up exclusively for emergency situations and cost very little. They can be set up to ring maybe only 2 people. If you set it up so that those people have caller id set up for your Dad's number they will know it is him calling, and they will know something is wrong.`
posted by Deathalicious at 4:52 PM on August 18, 2007

how technologically inclined are you? i think you could do this with a vb script, like this one, with the text and so on modified to suit your needs. i am not sure but i suspect the send command will try to initiate the "connect to the internet" magic and dial up etc.
posted by sergeant sandwich at 5:19 PM on August 18, 2007

Another point against e-mail: what if the computer can't get a connection? What if the e-mail can't get through, or even is falsely identified as spam? What if the computer won't boot up for some reason, or the icon gets accidentally sent into the trash can or dragged-and-dropped into another folder (never to be found)?

E-mail is not a sure way to communicate in any situation, even assuming a perfectly operational sender.
posted by amtho at 7:47 PM on August 18, 2007

One point I'll mention is that you probably don't want a solution that is based solely on calling 911, because some people will hesitate to have paramedics show up for a problem that doesn't seem sufficiently serious (e.g. a non-life-threatening fall). I believe the LifeAlert-type systems can be set up to call relatives first for this reason.

Of course, any phone-based solution could be set up to have relatives on speed dial buttons, so that would work.

One problem with phones, either cordless or cell, is that you have to make sure the phone stays charged (and still works), especially if it's not going to be used for any other purpose.
posted by dixie flatline at 9:30 PM on August 18, 2007

Real late at night here, I just scanned through the responses and will read them in depth tomorrow morning. Thank you to those who have responded. Before any more are posted I wanted to apologise for not pointing out that he lives in Australia..
posted by tra at 10:03 PM on August 18, 2007

I am not sure how this works exactly, but at a certain point of deterioration, you can get a 'geriatric assessment' or something similar done in Australia (at least in Victoria). If the person is considered suitably 'frail', they are then eligible for a package of assistance that can be spent in various ways to make their life more manageable, and so they are able to maintain independence. This could include LifeAlert or something similar. However, he may not be at that stage yet - however, given the difficulties of using the phone in his circumstances, he may be able to get one. He or somebody else needs to talk with his GP about this.

I don't think the email idea is good - for all the reasons above, and also because you can't know if anyone has actually received the email (eg late at night). I think you should go with the portable phone but would need someone to set it up with speed dials, and need to get one with large buttons (given my experience with older people). You can get portable phones with speaker phone options which helps with the two hand thing, but again you need to balance functionality with simplicity.

The Australian Red Cross ( provides a free service called Telecross which will make a daily phone call to frail or elderly people living alone. They try to call a certain number of times, and if they don't get through, call friends/family/neighbours to go check on the person.
posted by AnnaRat at 12:58 AM on August 19, 2007

The problems with carrying around a portable phone are remembering the phone, remembering to charge the phone, and hoping the power doesn't go out. Lifeline has a backup battery to combat the latter issue, if you're worried. Then again, since your original idea is a computer-based panic button...I think even the portable phone is an improvement.

Also, regarding your price range: Medicaid pays for the Lifeline service in most cases. If your father has Medicaid, contact his social worker and have the social worker give Lifeline a call to authorize an account for him.
posted by lizzicide at 7:01 AM on August 19, 2007

I greatly appreciate all the responses. Thank you so much, AnnaRat - I checked out Telecross in Queensland (where he lives) and it definitely appears to be the best option. I agree with all those who stated that email/computer are suboptimal solutions, but as I live in the US and my dad lives in Australia, researching and working out solutions that fit within a budget that also has to cope with two car payments, a house payment and a new infant was proving to be quite time consuming. Only thing I need to work out now is how many times Telecross will call him before they send out an alert, especially since he himself is out and about a fair bit (church, shopping and whatnot), plus due to the "preparation" he needs to do before engaging in a conversation, he often lets his phone go to voicemail, preferring to call the caller back, unless he hears my voice leaving a message. Retraining in order if I go the Telecross route, I guess.

Again, thank you to everyone who took time out to provide an answer.
posted by tra at 7:42 AM on August 19, 2007

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