MADERA COUNTY – Former Sheriff John Anderson and his Public Information Officer Erica Stuart, are honored to announce that Madera County’s origination of the “Elder Orphan” program has been named semi-finalist by Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation.
In November 2012, the Madera County Sheriff’s Office launched a twice-daily telephonic welfare check for seniors living alone. An automated call goes out to those enrolled, and upon answering, they are instructed to confirm receipt by pressing #1. If attempts to reach the subscriber fail, a member of the Sheriff’s Office is sent to their home. The program includes stop-start dates for residents who will be away from their home for extended periods of time.
Now in its third year, the program’s working title, “Elder Orphans,” came about, following a letter from a from an elder resident, who asked the Sheriff’s Office to find a way to make daily welfare checks after his wife of 46 years died, leaving him, as he described, “an elder orphan.”
In his letter he said that three people, in the span of three months had died in his mountain mobile home park. All three of his neighbors lived alone, and they died alone. And their deaths, as he described, went virtually unnoticed.
In one case, it took up to two days before one neighbor was found. A second neighbor wasn’t discovered for several weeks; and by the time authorities were called to a third home, the resident was found in the advanced stages of decomposition. Her dog had died too, from lack of food and water.
It seemed inconceivable to the sheriff’s staff that three people who lived in such close proximity weren’t missed. Equally worrisome were those who lived in more sparsely populated areas of the county, where some homes are built on rugged terrain and the nearest neighbor lives 40 acres away.
The plea for help touched a nerve with then-Madera County Sheriff John Anderson, who was committed to finding a way to give seniors some peace of mind. He wanted them to be assured that if they needed help, someone would know; and if they should pass away, they would have some dignity, even in death. So he assigned his Public Information Officer to research ways to address what appeared to be a burgeoning problem.
“It became apparent that some type of daily welfare check was needed, with the mounting number of seniors living in our county,” said Anderson. Madera County was one of the fastest growing counties in the state, with an ever-increasing number of retirees.
At that time, it was estimated that as many as 11,000 seniors lived alone, and the nearest relative might reside elsewhere in the state, or even across the country.
“In fact, through the course of our research, a 79-year-old man’s body was found in his rural Coarsegold home, only after relatives requested a welfare check because they were unable to reach him for a week,” Stuart recalls.
The mere idea of trying to physically reach out to 11,000 elder citizens daily seemed daunting. However, it was clear that there was a true need for it, and it became a top priority for Sheriff Anderson.
Automated welfare check programs weren’t new; there existed a number of such designs. However, for a rural law enforcement agency, purchasing one was cost prohibitive, and what existed didn’t address Madera County’s specific and unique needs.
“The challenge was to develop our own software,” says Stuart. “Limitations for the department included staffing, and no resources for overhead.”
Fortunately, the Madera County Sheriff’s Office was in the midst of revamping its emergency alert notification system. A new contract would be contingent upon incorporating a daily welfare check program that was specific to the “Elder Orphan” concept.
In the end, they chose Everbridge — a unified critical communications system, which is used worldwide — to deliver interactive support for both operational and emergency incidents.
“Everbridge was able to fill our needs by creating a specific demographic,” says Stuart. “Indeed, if automated alerts could be sent to specific areas within the county during an emergency, couldn’t the same type of automated call could be issued to a single group?”
And just like an emergency alert notification, the recipient would be advised to press the #1 button to confirm receipt. In the case of “Elder Orphan” clients, Dispatch could monitor who was answering their phone and who wasn’t.
If a client failed to answer the phone after three attempts, a Citizen on Patrol volunteer was sent to the home. This measure offered an added relief to a short-staffed body of available deputies, who could step in if required.
It should be noted that there have been times when clients would forget their designated notification check, or were away from home and unable to place a stop on the service, so the Sheriff’s Office included relatives, as well as a local point of contact in their data base.
If, for any reason, the system malfunctioned, volunteers would call every client to make sure they were okay. It happened only once, and every client was accounted for.
“For our efforts, we found a solution that, at no additional cost to taxpayers, met the needs of those who live alone,” says Stuart. Seniors found comfort in the daily checks, and the program offered distant relatives peace of mind. Equally critical, the innovative program did not overwhelm the department’s small staff.
Finding an efficient way to connect with Madera County’s growing senior population via automated welfare checks took a bit of imagination, and ultimately, made good fiscal sense. Why invest additional dollars in a program that you may already have at your fingertips?
“In the beginning, after much trial and error, Lt. Tyson Pogue modified and created a file that met the needs of that specific demographic,” says Stuart, “and we did it without any additional cost to the department or County.”
While the daily welfare check concept isn’t unique, Madera County’s “Elder Orphan” initiative is distinctive.
“By using the tools we had via Everbridge, we designed a program that was viewed as not only creative but fiscally sound,” Stuart explains. “In 2014 we submitted our resourceful program to Innovations in American Government Awards at Harvard for consideration. In December 2015, we were awarded semi-finalist. We are honored that Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation recognized our origination, and we hope that other communities throughout the United States would duplicate our efforts.”
To register yourself, or someone you know and love, in the Elder Orphan’s program, call the Madera County Sheriff’s Office at 559-675-7976. The service is free, and goes a long way toward providing peace of mind for those who participate, and for their friends and families who may live far away. More information is available at http://www.madera-county.com/index.php/elder-orphans-home
Sheriff John Anderson and his PIO, Erica H. Stuart, both retired from the Madera County Sheriff’s Office in 2015.