Adele Stone turned 90 in May. It was a birthday she might have missed if not for the computer-phone system that calls her apartment each morning to ask, "Are You OK?"
Most mornings, she just hangs up, an all-is-well signal to security officers monitoring the system at the huge Co-op City complex in the Bronx. But one morning last February it was not.
Stone answered her daily call. Later, when she went to take a shower, she suddenly felt weak and crawled into the tub.
"I don't remember how long I was there and whether I did pass out," she said. "The next thing I knew a neighbor, who is a nurse, and the security people were there."
Co-op City police were alerted after Stone missed the next morning's call and four subsequent calls to her apartment. "We found her in the locked bathroom, inside the tub with no water. She had been there at least 20 hours," said Co-op City Sgt. John Reggio.
If not for the check-in system, chances are that Stone--who lives alone and has no living relatives--would not have been found for days. Instead, she was rushed to a hospital, treated for dehydration and released.
"We like to think we had something to do with her turning 90," said Bill Schwarz, general manager of the Riverbay Corp., which operates the 300-acre complex that is home to about 55,000 people.
With an aging population and many residents living alone, the Are You OK system provides an added layer of protection.
Designed in 1988 by St. Paul, Minn., businessman Bruce Johnson, owner of Northland Innovation Corp., Are You OK systems are on line at 120 sites in the United States and Canada.
It is primarily used by police--from small towns such as Osage, Iowa, (pop. 3,800) to Sun City, Ariz., which has 85,000 elderly residents.
It is also increasingly popular with high-rise complexes such as Co-op City and Rochdale Village in the borough of Queens, N.Y.
Co-op City installed the system in September, 1990, to keep tabs on 186 senior residents. Spokesman Al Zezula said the co-op board realized the need because security police were being called daily.
"They'd get phone calls saying, 'I haven't seen Mrs. so-and-so in a couple of days. Can you check on her, please?' " Zezula said. "That's when we began to explore ways to prevent people from getting lost in this huge community of ours."
"The concept is simple," said Johnson. "It assumes you're OK if you're able to answer the telephone. When the computer calls and gets no answer, police then go out and find out why."
It takes little manpower to operate the system. An operator punches in three keystrokes and the computer automatically begins making its calls.
"Good morning. Are you OK?" a recorded voice asks. "If you're having a problem, hang up immediately and dial 911. If you're OK all you have to do is hang up your telephone. Have a nice day."
An alarm is sounded--a high-pitched beep to alert officers--after four missed calls, usually placed at 45-minute intervals. At the same time, it prints out a form giving the person's address and medical history, which doctor to call and how to reach next of kin.
The entire system, computer, software and setup, costs $9,000; the software alone runs about $4,000.
Residents sign up for specific times to be called, and their only obligation is to be there for the call or notify police or the security office when they will not be home.
"It may happen once that a senior forgets, but it never happens twice, because they're mortified when that squad car shows up," Johnson said.
Johnson stresses that the system wasn't designed for lifesaving--"although it has done that a few times"--but as a logical extension of police and security services.
"It doesn't replace any programs cities have in place to take care of seniors. It's meant to be a safety net," Johnson said.