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Andrew Dibner, a psychologist who launched a new segment in the health care industry when he invented a medical alert system that let elderly and disabled people call for help when they cannot reach a telephone or knock on a neighbor’s door, died on Saturday in a memory care facility in Peoria, Ariz. He was 93.
Dr. Robin Dibner, his daughter, said the cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease.
Mr. Dibner was a psychology professor at Boston University with a special interest in the problems of old age in 1972 when one day, while shaving, he pondered what happens when a frail person, living alone, falls and cannot move.
“How does someone who can’t call for help call for help?” he recalled wondering.
He and his wife, Susan Schmidt Dibner, a sociologist, answered the question in 1974 by starting Lifeline Systems, widely recognized as the first company to sell personal emergency response systems in the United States. She remained his partner in the company.
Lifeline prompted other companies to enter the business, most famously LifeCall, whose well-known television commercial featured an older woman lying on the floor, saying, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”
Mr. Dibner credited that ad with boosting his company’s sales, because it brought national attention to the growing market for Lifeline as well as its competitors.
The system the Dibners devised provided at-risk people with transmitters that are worn as pendants or bracelets. If they are immobilized by a fall or an illness but still conscious, they can press a button on the transmitter, which sends a signal to a console linked to their home telephone, which in turn automatically dials a central monitoring station.
Once the connection is made, an operator can assess the situation, possibly by speaking to the person through the console’s speakerphone and then calling for help from a previously designated neighbor or relative or, ultimately, an ambulance.
The Dibners said they were offering comfort and reassurance to people who might otherwise have to live in nursing homes or who felt vulnerable after being discharged quickly from a hospital.
“Even if they didn’t use this,” Mr. Dibner told The New York Times in 1984, “people will have the psychological assurance that they’re not alone.”
The Dibners were among several recipients of the Charles A. Dana Foundation’s award for pioneering achievements in health and education in 1986.
Andrew Sherman Dibner was born on May 30, 1926, in Brooklyn to Harry and Masha (Goldberg) Dibner, immigrants from Russia. His father sold insurance, and his mother was a seamstress and homemaker.
After serving stateside in the Army during World War II, Mr. Dibner enrolled at Brooklyn College. He did not do well in engineering courses and, guided by an aptitude test, shifted to psychology. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1948, he attended the University of Michigan, where he earned a master’s and a Ph.D. in psychology.
He moved between teaching and clinical work for a decade before settling at Boston University in 1964 as a psychology professor. He was a founder of the school’s gerontology center.
The idea for Lifeline came to Mr. Dibner while he was on a research fellowship at the Duke University Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development in Durham, N.C. The company took shape in the Dibners’ living room in Newton Centre, Mass., outside Boston, and in an office over a dry cleaner’s in nearby Watertown.
An engineer built the first prototype of the system. But 25 venture capital firms turned the Dibners down for financing.
“They liked the idea,” Mr. Dibner told The Wisconsin State Journal in 1983. “They didn’t trust us as managers.”
After they brought in an experienced businessman as the company’s chairman, venture capital money came in.
Initially, Lifeline’s target customers were not high-risk adults but institutions like hospitals, nursing homes and health care agencies, which would buy monitoring stations and charge fees to individuals who wanted the service. The business model was eventually augmented to include selling directly to consumers.
Mr. Dibner continued to teach at Boston University until 1984, even as he was building Lifeline.
Active in the faculty union, he was one of five professors who in 1979 urged their students not to cross the picket lines of striking staff members and librarians. The professors were fired by John R. Silber, the university’s president, but reinstated after protesting faculty members voted to demand Mr. Silber’s dismissal.
Lifeline went public in 1983, and Mr. Dibner remained with the company until his retirement in 1990. In 2006, when Lifeline had more than $100 million in annual revenues, 470,000 individual subscribers and business relationships with many health care organizations, it was acquired by Royal Philips Electronics for $690 million.
The company, now called Philips Lifeline, based in Framingham, Mass., says it is the leading medical-alert service in the United States.
Mr. Dibner’s invention has evolved since his retirement to include modern twists like connections to cellphones and a technology that can detect falls and send emergency help even if the person cannot push the transmitter.
In addition to his daughter Robin, a rheumatologist, Mr. Dibner is survived by his wife, Jean Proulx Dibner; his son, Steven; two other daughters, Nina Dibner and Lora Dibner Garcia; two stepdaughters, Jennifer and Suzanne Proulx; two stepsons, Thomas and Jonathan Proulx; five grandchildren; and 10 step-grandchildren. His first marriage, to Iris Miroy, ended in divorce. Ms. Schmidt Dibner, his second wife and partner at Lifeline, died in 1988.
Mr. Dibner’s interest in helping fragile older people began well before he conceived Lifeline. In 1958, a family friend in her 70s, who lived alone, had a stroke and was not found for three days, further compromising her health.
“She died within six months in a nursing home,” he told The Times. “Maybe that was on my mind.”
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