Finding hidden elders in need of help

Have you noticed newspapers piling up outside an elder’s front door? Or perhaps you know an older apartment tenant who has started small fires more than once by forgetting that she left a pot on the stove. The postal carrier may have noticed that the mail of an elderly man has been accumulating in the mailbox for three days. Or the power company supervisor notices that a faithful customer for over 40 years has failed to pay her utility bill for the past two months.

These are just a few of the many signs that could indicate an older citizen needs assistance. Some elders are afraid to seek help for fear the authorities will take away their independence. But just the opposite is true — services arranged for the elder will actually help him or her maintain their independent living longer and more safely.

“It is so important for all of us to be aware of the elders around us,” explains Josielind Ferrer, manager of Juneau’s Gatekeeper Program, “Just one phone call to our office can save an elders’ life.”

Statistics indicate that one in three elders live alone and that, while they make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, elders represent 19 percent of all suicides.

Depression or dementia often prevent them from seeking the help they need.

To locate these isolated and at-risk elders, Southeast Senior Services initiated the Gatekeeper Project, modeled after a program in Spokane, Wash.

The Gatekeeper Project is a system of prevention and intervention, returning to traditions of the past where people look out for each other. It involves any and all citizens serving as Gatekeepers to identify older people in trouble or potential trouble.

Gatekeepers are persons who notice “red flags” which may indicate that an older person needs help and then make just one phone call to connect them with services.

Gatekeepers may be bank tellers, postal workers, newspaper carriers, police officers, fire fighters, pharmacists, customer representatives, property managers — anyone who comes into contact with at-risk elderly in the course of their regular business day. No extra time commitment is required and that one phone call makes a real difference.

Southeast Senior Services is seeking various businesses and agencies in our community to participate in the Gatekeeper Project. Training is available to teach their employees or community members warning signs and how to refer an elder for help. Ferrer, who serves as the trainer, will meet with interested persons to explain the protocol and answer any questions.

Once an elder in need is identified, the Gatekeeper calls the Senior Information Office and Caregiver Resource Center at 463-6177 and provides, whenever possible, the elderly person’s name, his or her address, a brief description of any concerns, as well as the Gatekeeper’s name and telephone number.

The staff will assess the situation and arrange needed services, including a visit from a professional counselor, if appropriate. All information regarding the elder will be kept in strictest confidence and the name of the Gatekeeper may remain anonymous.

Serving as a Gatekeeper agency is an excellent means for a business to establish good public relations. For the individual Gatekeeper, the experience is personally rewarding.

“It is a great way to give back to the elders who have shaped our world,” said Ferrer. Persons interested in learning more should call 463-6177.

• Marianne Mills, M.S.W., is the program director for Southeast Senior Services.

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