Gatekeepers find hidden elders who need help

Posted: Friday, November 26, 2004

Senior News By Marianne Mills

Have you noticed newspapers piling up outside an elder's door? Or perhaps you know an older tenant who has started small fires 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 of 40 years has not paid her utility bill for the past four 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 elders will actually help them 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 Mary Miller, program supervisor for the Bridge Adult Day Program. "Just one phone call to our care coordinator can make a big difference in an elder's life."

Statistics indicate that one in three elders lives 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 prevents them from seeking the help they need.

To locate these isolated and at-risk elders, Southeast Senior Services recently 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" that 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, firefighters, pharmacists, customer representatives, property managers - anyone who comes into contact with at-risk elderly in the course of their regular business day.

"Oftentimes, these professionals see things that concern them, but don't know who to call or what to do. The Gatekeeper Project provides the answers. No extra time commitment is required and that one phone call makes a real difference," Miller says.

Southeast Senior Services recently sent out letters to various businesses and agencies in our community, inviting them to participate in the Gatekeeper Project. The letter explains that training is available to teach their employees or community members warning signs and how to refer an elder for help. Miller, 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 care coordinator at 463-6195, then provides, whenever possible, the elderly person's name, his or her address, a brief description of any concerns, the gatekeeper's name and telephone number. The care coordinator will assess the situation and arrange needed services, including a visit from a professional counselor. All information regarding the elder will be kept in strictest confidence and the name of the gatekeeper may remain anonymous, if desired.

Serving as a gatekeeper agency is an excellent means for a business to establish good public relations. Businesses or groups interested in learning more about the program should contact Miller at 463-6171. Everyone is invited to participate.

• Marianne Mills is the program director for Southeast Senior Services, a program of Catholic Community Service. CCS assists all persons regardless of their faith.

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