Ma Bell

One of the most exciting moments after Dad moved into Assisted Living was when he was able to start making his own calls again with a voice-activated telephone dialer.   We had set up phone service for him when he moved in, however unbeknownst to me he was unable to make calls.  It wasn’t until several months had gone by that I noticed I always called him, he never called me.  In fact, I honestly couldn’t remember the last time I had received a call from him. That was when I realized that in addition to his dementia, his eye sight had failed so badly due to macular degeneration that he was no longer able to see the over-sized key pad on his telephone to place calls.  And since Dad was always a very proud man, he never brought the problem to anyone’s attention.  Thanks to my husband’s suggestion, we started looking into voice-activated telephone dialers – who even knew such a thing existed?

After a couple of internet searches on sight-impaired products, I quickly found voice-activated telephone dialers.  It didn’t take long to find a model that received decent customer ratings and I ordered one immediately.  The device arrived within a week.  Both Dad and I were anxious to set it up and give it a whirl.  Set up was a cinch.  It only took a minute or so to plug the dialer in with his existing telephone equipment.  Then we had to “train” it to recognize his voice.  That was when the real work started…

“Ok Dad, when I say go – you say Jennifer”

“Jennifer?”

“No not now.  Wait until I give you the signal.  Ok go!”

“Jennifer?”

“Dad you have to say my name like a statement, not a question.  Otherwise the dialer won’t recognize it when you go to make a call.  Let’s try it again.  Ok, now – go!”

“You want me to say Jennifer?”

“Yes Dad, but say it normally, not like it’s a question.  Listen to how I say it both ways so you can hear the difference – ‘Jennifer’ vs. ‘Jennifer?’  Get it?

“Yes (pause), I get it”

“Ok, say it now!”

“Jennifer!”

“Excellent!  Let’s see if it works when you try to call me.  After you pick up the phone, you’re going to hear a voice recording that says ‘Name to dial please.’ Once you hear that, say my name.”

Dad picked up the receiver and waited.  I heard the recording finish and eagerly awaited Dad’s response.  Nothing.

“Did you hear the recording?”

“Yes”

“Then why didn’t you say the name?”

“What name?”

“My Name!”

I was starting to get frustrated, but needed to remain calm to avoid getting Dad flustered over our mission to set up the dialer.  This time he picked up the receiver, listened for the recording and softly said; “Jennifer.”  We waited hoping to hear the familiar sound of a phone dialing.  Instead, the recording simply repeated itself; ‘Name to dial please.’ He looked up at me with a blank expression.  Apparently, the voice-activation did not recognize the name, probably due to the subtle nuances between the way the name had been recorded and the way he had annunciated it while trying to “dial”.  We were back to square one, sigh…;

“Ok Dad, say my name again…”

After several more attempts to properly record the name, Dad gave it one last try.  He held the receiver to his ear, heard the automated recording ‘Name to dial please’ and said; “Jennifer” with just the right inflection that he used to record the name.  Within a couple of seconds we could hear the phone dialing.  I jumped up with my hands in the air as if the Bruins had just scored the winning Stanley Cup goal (Mom was a huge ice hockey fan)!

“You did it – it worked!!  My cell phone is ringing and I see your name!!”  I picked it up;

“Hello?”

“Hi” said Dad.

“You called me, the dialer works!”

Dad looked a bit bewildered, as we stood there side by side in his apartment having our conversation, but seemed satisfied that we had accomplished the task at hand.  I’m not sure if he was more pleased with the fact that we had made it work or just happy that his grueling dictation sessions were over.  Nonetheless, it was a major breakthrough in gaining back some of the independence that he had been slowly losing over time.

Several weeks later on our birthday (my husband and I have the same birthday), my phone rang early in the morning.  I could see that it was Dad and excitedly answered the call;

“Happy Birthday honey, same to James as well.”

“Wow Dad, you remembered our birthday AND you were able to call us!”

The remainder of the conversation trailed off a bit on whatever Dad had going through his LBD thoughts that day.  However, it was one of those triumphant moments that I will always remember. 

From that point forward the dialer became a way to gage Dad’s cognitive function. When he became more confused, he was unable to properly use the device.   So if I hadn’t gotten a call from him in a few days, I knew that he was going through a rough patch and that his dementia was progressing.  At one point I realized he hadn’t called me for a couple of weeks.  When I asked him about it, he told me that he had in fact been using the dialer, but kept getting someone else.   After some investigation, it was obvious that Dad had inadvertently reprogrammed the dialer while trying to “fix” it.  The unfortunate gentleman whom had been the receiver of Dad’s continuous calls was very irritated when we called to confirm the dialer wasn’t working appropriately.  However, he was very sympathetic and quite apologetic when I explained the situation.  I called the manufacturer promptly thereafter and obtained the necessary instructions to reset the device and set things straight again.

Within a year of having the dialer, Dad began to start calling at all hours of the night, leaving long lengthy messages about his “situation” and/or having to come pick him up from wherever he thought he was.  When these calls started to occur more frequently, I had to start leaving my phone outside of our bedroom to avoid being woken up in the middle of the night – especially during the work week.  Regardless of the fact that he was calling during the wee hours, I just didn’t have the heart to unplug the lifeline that both he and I had grown to depend on.  To this day, I have an abundant number of messages on my voice mail from Dad that would seem completely ordinary to anyone who was unaware of his LBD and the fact that they were left between the hours of 1am and 4am.

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