‘It’s a gift from God’: Cybermation tele-health venture makes it easier to monitor activity, medications

Written by Kevin Allenspach
12:40 AM, Dec. 11, 2011

St. Cloud Times – www.sctimes.com

See a video of GrandCare Client, Ed Thelen, discussing why the GrandCare System works for him and how it has been a lifesaver and lifted his spirits! http://link.brightcove.com/services/player/bcpid950566939001?bckey=AQ~~,AAAACbynFGE~,sf-WXU5Jxxvzf0yBwv5ezSaUvcZFydJt&bctid=1320587839001

COLD SPRING — After complications from shoulder surgery made it difficult for 69-year-old Ed Thelen to sleep in a bed at night, he’s taken to dozing in a giant easy chair in the living room of his third-floor home at John Paul Apartments. That discomfort isn’t his only concern. He also has a pacemaker, battles diabetes, struggles with Parkinson’s disease and is in a constant fight against obesity and depression. His biggest worry, though, is whether he’ll be able to keep a new device that has revolutionized his life.

As Thelen relates how he came to this place after 45 years of moving around the region as an insurance underwriter, something that looks like a flat-screen TV chirps next to his chair. He reaches over, touches a prompt, and within seconds is talking with his daughter via Skype.

After their conversation, he shows a visitor how the screen also notifies him if he has letters, pictures or video sent from one of his six grandchildren. He calls up his blood-pressure readings from the past month, which he can provide directly to his doctor, and demonstrates how it prompts him to take his pills — morning, noon and night — from a dispenser in the kitchen.

Ed Thelen, 69, of Cold Spring is able to live in his apartment with the help of an integrated monitoring system marketed locally by Cybermation. With the system, Thelen and others can monitor his health and activities and communicate with him through a touch screen he has in his living room. Jason Wachter, jwachter@stcloudtimes.com

“It’s phenomenal,” Thelen said with a hint of emotion behind his eyes. “If I forget to take my medication, it sends a signal and the phone rings. A voice says (with a nasal twang) ‘Mr. Thelen, you haven’t taken your medication.’ With all the things it does, to me it’s a gift from God.”

It is a GrandCare System, a product of a company in West Bend, Wis., that is being marketed locally for the first time by Cybermation, a Waite Park-based business that for 15 years was primarily known for home entertainment and security systems. Thelen has been working with it for about three weeks.

“We’ve mostly been about big boys toys,” Cybermation President Tom Ardolf said. “Commercial and residential people come to us and spend tens of thousands of dollars on their home theater, or they bring us a basket of remotes and ask us to create one that will run everything in their house. But late last year I got a call from a distributor that had known us for 10 years. They’d started a tele-health venture. I just wanted to ask the guy if we could go fishing. He said, ‘You really ought to look into this.’ ’’

Soon after he did, Ardolf decided to launch CyberHealth, a new division of Cybermation. His company is one of more than 300 authorized installers for the GrandCare System in the U.S. and Canada. Four are in Minnesota, with the other three in the Twin Cities metro area.

He said he’s working with an unnamed rural health care provider to distribute the GrandCare System on a wider scale. And, with baby boomers entering retirement and becoming elderly, remote monitoring is expected to be a $9.3 billion industry by 2014.

“My mom passed in 2007, and I often think of how my life, my mom’s life and that of my sisters would’ve been different if we’d had something like this,” Ardolf said.

Family connections

Gladys Ardolf lived in Maple Lake and was 78 when she died of complications from dystonia, a movement disorder that causes muscles to contract and spasm involuntarily. For the last six to eight years of her life, two of Tom Ardolf’s three sisters living in the area made daily — sometimes twice-daily — visits to make sure she was all right.

“The average caregiver puts in 24 hours a week — that’s a significant part-time job,” said Ardolf, 50. “People are willing to do it, especially when it’s their mom or their dad. But around year one or two, there’s invariably some resentment about ‘Why doesn’t this sibling who lives far away do something to help?’ If we’d had one of these systems, I could’ve played a role in her care — even though I’m 40 miles away.”

While the screen is in the user’s home, like the one next to Thelen’s easy chair, it provides a window for family members, caregivers and physicians to monitor the user’s health and activities.

“Just by placing sensors around my mom’s home, I could’ve had a call or text sent to my phone if she didn’t get up between 6 and 9 a.m.,” Ardolf said. “I would’ve known if she was restless in bed, went to the bathroom or didn’t take a shower. We could’ve put a magnet on the microwave that would’ve told us if she’d had coffee in the morning. It’s little things like that which can give you peace of mind — or alert you to trouble if they don’t happen.”

Major investment

Cybermation started installing a few systems in January through a grant in Benton County dedicated to making such technology available. Thelen’s is one of the first in Stearns County.

They represent a significant investment, starting at $2,000, and require a monthly connection fee that starts at about $100. Thelen’s system is being provided on a trial basis through EquipALife, a nonprofit organization dedicated to assisting people with disabilities. He is applying for government assistance to help with the costs, but doesn’t know whether he’ll get it or not.

“I live off Social Security,” he said. “I had a gambling addiction that cost me everything else. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to afford it, but I hope so. I know why I need it: so I take my medication. But deep down in my heart, that’s not the reason I want it: I now have access to my grandchildren. Everything I was missing out on, I can see now. And my daughter can keep track of me and know I’m taking care of myself. I think it’s helping my depression, too. I just feel better now. People around here even mention it. They say, ‘What’s with you? You’re smiling and laughing.’ ’’

Going downhill

Thelen, an Army veteran who is divorced and has three adult children, grew up in Cold Spring and felt this was where he should return after a stroke in 2004 led to kidney trouble and memory loss. Not long after, his daughter, Kerry Volkers, came across information about the GrandCare System. She lives in Maple Grove and is a social worker dealing with children with disabilities. The GrandCare System also can be used to help people who have suffered traumatic brain injuries.

“Dad was starting to go downhill,” Volkers said. “He would fall. He’d forget to take his medication. And you can’t do that in his condition. He was on his own in an apartment a year ago and then we moved him to the John Paul Apartments because they have assisted living and nursing home facilities nearby if he needed more support. But we still didn’t have peace of mind until we called (Ardolf).”

Now Volkers knows from her home in Maple Grove, just as do his sons in Eden Prairie and Chicago, whether Thelen took his blood pressure measurements. She also can view the readings. If they’re off, she makes an appointment for him to see a doctor.

But it’s more than that. There are sensors in the kitchen and she can tell if he’s had a lot of activity there.

“I’ll type a short note to him that will say something like ‘Are you eating healthy?’ ’’ Volkers said.

Thelen grumbles about some of that attention, but realizes he needs it.

“It’s all about keeping him independent as long as possible,” Volkers said.

Alert, sharper

She says some of the games and brain exercises also on the system have made her father sharper, more alert. He also does a daily self-assessment that can give doctors a good idea how he’s handling his depression.

Some privacy advocates say such technology is invasive. But Thelen and others like him are fine with that as long as it allows them to stay in their home. It’s also much cheaper than a home health care aide or nursing home care.

Ardolf, who has bachelor’s and master’s degrees from St. Cloud State University, said he hopes to be in the “low 20s,” in the number of systems he’ll have installed by the end of the year.

While it sounds complicated, the system is designed to require no computer skills. He told of working with a 90-year-old woman in Waite Park who suffers from dementia.

“She doesn’t know what she’s doing — she just hits a button and then she’s talking to her granddaughter and great-granddaughter,” Ardolf said. “But she probably does more Skyping than I do and I run a tech company.

“This just fits so well under the Cybermation umbrella,” Ardolf added. “We use the same technology applications as the rest of our business. From a difficulty standpoint, it’s probably a 2.”

St. Cloud Times – www.sctimes.com