December 25, 2011

Elder care company lets seniors live at home

Combining surveillance with a support network and lower costs, the company's services appeal to seniors who want to stay at home.

By Leslie Bridgers
Staff Writer

ROCKLAND — Framed needlepoints cover the walls of Patty Gardner's living room, where she and Marian White sit and work on their embroidery every Monday.

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Patty Gardner, left, laughs last week with Marian White of Rockport, a Full Circle America volunteer who visits weekly with Gardner in her Rockland home. The visits are part of a monitoring service that allows Gardner, a 77-year-old who suffers from dementia, to live at home alone. The service is less costly than a nursing home or assisted-living options.

Photos by John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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A webcam perched on the hutch between Patty Gardner’s kitchen and living room is monitored at least four times a day as part of the elder-care services supplied by Full Circle America. Motion sensors in her bedroom and bathroom are also monitored.

The weekly visits began in October, but Gardner feels as though they've been happening a lot longer.

"Forever, it seems," she said last week.

Gardner, a spry and smiley 77-year-old, has dementia. She also lives alone.

But Gardner isn't often by herself, and she's always being monitored.

A webcam sits on a hutch between the kitchen and living room of her home, steps away from downtown Rockland. There are motion sensors in her bedroom and bathroom. All three devices are checked for activity at least four times a day.

The gadgets and visits from White and other volunteers are services offered by Full Circle America, a Damariscotta-based company that aims to help elderly people continue to live in their own homes, rather than move into a nursing home or assisted-living facility.

Amy Gardner, an elementary school music teacher in Belfast, said she wouldn't feel comfortable leaving her mother at home every day without the surveillance and support network.

"If it was status quo from last year, we would have serious conversations about assisted living," she said.

Patty Gardner is among a handful of customers in the Rockland area who signed up for the services this summer. A new Portland branch could start taking customers within three to six months, joining the two branches already operating in midcoast Maine.

The company was formed by Dr. Allan "Chip" Teel, a longtime family physician in Damariscotta, who said his elderly patients have had the same mantra for as long as he can remember.

"(They) would wag their fingers in my face and said, 'Don't you ever put me in a nursing home,'" he said.

Often they didn't need full-time care, said Teel, but their families were worried about leaving them alone. He believed technology could bridge the gap and lower the cost.

A membership to Full Circle America costs $350 to $1,000 per month, depending on how much care the customer needs. In comparison, Teel said, an assisted-living facility or nursing home can cost $5,000 to $10,000 per month.

The money covers paid employees such as cooks, nurses and others who visit patients, as well as the cameras and other monitoring equipment and the people who operate them. Teel says the operations are breaking even.

"We needed to come up with something different," he said.

Teel launched a pilot program in Damariscotta five years ago that now serves 60 customers equipped with gadgets like Gardner's. Last year, he founded Full Circle America with the intention of replicating the model in communities throughout the country. His goal is to open 25 affiliates in 2012.

Although Teel said there's widespread interest in the method, it hasn't quite been accepted as the solution to elderly home care by Southern Maine Agency on Aging, which also aids elderly people who live in their own homes.

"We have mixed feelings," said Eileen Whynot, spokeswoman for the Scarborough agency. "Although it sounds like a safety net, it's a little bit like spying."

The use of technology is just one component of Teel's alternative method of elder care. Volunteers make phone calls and visits to check on customers, help with errands and provide the human interaction that elderly people often lack, he said.

Most of the volunteers are also customers. Depending on their limitations, they may be responsible for reminding clients to take their pills, making a home-cooked meal or hosting a gathering at their home. In addition to providing help to others, volunteering gives customers greater purpose to their lives, said Teel.

"Most of them want to be useful," he said.

Teel demonstrates his method in a book he wrote last year called "Alone and Invisible No More," which has generated local and national interest in his alternative model.

Rita Farry, an attorney who lives in Cumberland, said a colleague recommended the book to her, and now she's organizing the launch of Full Circle America's Portland branch.

"It's a very exciting program and certainly one that's needed," said Farry, who is in the process of developing a business plan and screening volunteers. "I really think it's going to take off."

Teel said he's talked to people from Bangor to Orlando, Fla., who, like Farry, are interested in starting a Full Circle America affiliate in their community.

"There's been enormous interest," he said.

In his book, Teel says he wants to open 10,000 affiliates within a decade, which he said would require three or four branches opening every day. He recognizes that's more than a little ambitious.

"If we get anywhere close to that, I'd feel pretty good," he said.

Staff Writer Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at: 791-6364 or at


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