FineThanx checks on grandma so you don't have to

For $34.95 a month, an automated phone service will call your aging loved ones twice a day, alert a "care circle" if no one answers or something is wrong.

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
2 min read

When Peter Scharff didn't call his grandmother on a Wednesday or Thursday, the housekeeper found the 99-year-old woman on the kitchen floor Friday morning, where she had fallen and broken her hip two days prior.

While his grandmother recovered and lived to 105, Scharff was too disturbed by the narrow miss to forget about her agonizing hours on the floor. So he and his daughter, Rachel, devised a recently-launched automated phone service that, for $34.95 a month, will call an aging loved one twice a day to check in.

The concept behind FineThanx is intentionally simple: Those receiving the check-ins press 1 if they are OK and 2 if they need assistance. If they do not answer, as would have been the case of Scharff's grandmother as she lay stranded on the floor, another call is placed after 30 minutes, and if they still do not answer, a third call after another 30 minutes. At that point, the designated emergency contact is called.

"I researched a lot of the competitive systems and approaches out there, and looked at making all kinds of complicated motion sensors and algorithms on whether someone is moving," says Scharff, who built FineThanx after finding himself a bit bored a year into his retirement. "But the reality is most people don't want to spend a lot of money, don't like the invasion into their homes, and barely use anything too complicated. It's so simple: no equipment necessary, no training necessary."

As Scharff likes to say, the system makes it possible to get help by doing absolutely nothing, so long as you can afford the monthly fee. And while this feels a bit like the lazy way out, the reality is most of us don't have time to check in multiple times a day every day.

A 2006 study of elderly patients living independently in Canada found that regular phone contact resulted in fewer home care services, which in turn reduced health and public service costs. It even cited high satisfaction among those contacted but also lower burdens on caregivers.

There's no question that FineThanx will help in the event of an emergency. As I consider such a service for my own grandmothers, the big question is whether a twice-daily phone call from a machine will be a source of comfort or sadness as they are reminded every day that I chose to use a machine instead of my own time.