Rita Melone, 94, was temporarily staying in a nursing home and constantly being reminded to use her walker by the staff when she needed to get somewhere. Melone, a retired instructional aide to middle school students, knew the repeated reminders were frustrating to the home’s staff.
“You constantly heard everyone getting told to use their walker. If one of us fell, it would be a disaster,” she said during a recent interview. She spoke to her daughter, who was working at Hasbro Toys at the time, and said there needed to be a product out there that would make a noise and attract seniors to use their walker.
She remembered how her own mom enjoyed feeding birds, and the “Walker Squawker” was born. Created alongside Joy for All Companion Pets and Ageless Innovation, the Walker Squawker is a playful, animatronic bird that sits on walkers and serves as a personal “sidekick.”
Ageless Innovation, a Pawtucket-based company that creates products catered to older adults that are designed to alleviate feelings of isolation, loneliness, and cognitive decline. It’s led by CEO and co-founder Ted Fischer, who started the company at Hasbro Toys before breaking it off into its own company.
Q: How does the Walker Squawker work?
Fischer: The bird responds to touch after you turn it on. As you pet it, it will make different sounds, which are native to the species. On the walker, you put it on top of the universal walker perch where it connects to a magnet. Once you put it there, it changes modes and starts to sing songs. It recognizes when you’re moving the walker and continues singing. When you stop, it will stop and then give you a reminder to use the walker.
How do you turn it on and off? Is it difficult, or is it accessible for anyone?
Fischer: You press a button on the tail. It couldn’t be more simple for anyone to use.
Walker is available both as a cardinal and a blue bird. Why did you create those two choices?
Melone: When you’re in a nursing home during Christmas time, the staff usually decorates the space. The nursing homes also help decorate their residents’ walkers in a “Christmasy-mode.” The cardinal is very bright and attractive. When someone feels the bird, it’s soft to the touch and catches the eye. As for the blue jay: years ago, they made a Shirley Temple movie called The Blue Bird of Happiness. Many people my age still resonate with that film.
[Also, when Melone and her husband were first engaged, he gifted her a cedar chest with a blue bird of happiness inside.]
Rita, are you working on any other product ideas?
Melone: I can’t disclose them at this time! They’re secret. My mind is always going. I live at home now. A lady is never supposed to tell her age, but in a few months, I will be turning 95 the day after Christmas.
How much does the Walker Squawker cost and when will they be available?
Fischer: We’re suggesting that it retail for about $65. We’re just getting them out to folks so we don’t have any anecdotal stories outside of Rita’s friends and peer group. Rita went to a local walking club recently and the people there tried out the Walker Squawker.
Will it be covered by insurance?
Fischer: We have two very distinct channels: One is retail and the other is health care. It’s been that way since the inception of our business. Our original companion pets [available in cats and dogs] have been validated through peer review studies and research [through AARP and UnitedHealthcare, James Madison University, the American Journal of Medicine, among dozens of other clinical studies] to have a meaningful impact on older adults who suffer from loneliness, isolation, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Our original pets were first approved by Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to be covered under Medicare and Medicaid in 2020. We are covered in national plans around the country in those products and anticipate that Walker will eventually be as well.
Have you conducted any clinical trials on the Walker Squawker yet?
Fischer: We’re about to start that research. The state of New York is a partner, which pre-ordered a few thousand of these. They will be testing them out, doing research to validate Walker’s impact. We really went for Rita’s vision, which was having something fun and engaging that helps you remember to use your walker but gives off the the playful side of aging — which is not something many people focus on.
The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Alexa Gagosz at email@example.com.