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Sheriff's New Service Offers Dignity To Seniors

MADERA COUNTY — With so many elderly people living alone these days, being able to check on their safety and welfare has become a concern for friends and relatives, and for the Madera County Sheriff’s Office.

To address this growing concern, Sheriff John Anderson has launched a new program called “Elder Orphans.”Elder Orphans was designed by the Madera County Sheriff’s Office to perform automatic telephonic welfare checks, to meet the specific needs of people who live alone, or who may be home-bound and do not have the services of an in-home attendant.

The hope is that this will give seniors some peace of mind that if they need help, someone will know, and if they should pass away, they will have some dignity even in death.

Sheriff Anderson, along with Lieutenant Mike Salvador and Public Information Officer Erica Stuart, demonstrated how the system works at a press conference on Wednesday in Madera.

“When you answer the phone,” explains Anderson, “you will hear a recording that prompts you to respond in one of two ways: Press #1 indicating that you have received this message, and you are fine; Press #2 to indicate there is an emergency. By pressing #2 you will be immediately connected to the Sheriff’s Communications Center.”

If a subscriber does not answer after a preset number of calls, an audible alert will sound in the Sheriff’s Emergency Dispatch Center, prompting an immediate dispatch for a welfare check.

The concept of Elder Orphans was conceived by Sheriff Anderson after receiving a letter from an Oakhurst senior citizen in August 2010.

Jerry Ongman’s letter cut to the heart of what scares a good number of senior citizens. “Elderly people frequently spend the last few years of their lives alone, and when the time comes, they die alone,” he wrote.

Mr. Ongman wrote that letter following three tragic deaths in his mobile home park in Oakhurst. Despite living in close proximity in the small community, these deaths went virtually unnoticed for days, and in one case, weeks.

“If three people can go unnoticed in a densely populated area like a mobile park, I cannot imagine how bad the problem is in the more sparsely populated areas of the county,” wrote Ongman.

In his role as County Coroner, Anderson says he sees this situation all too often. “People die alone, and no one knows. I don’t think that’s right. We owe people some dignity, even after they die.”

Anderson says that it could be three days, or three weeks, or even three months before it is discovered that someone has passed away. In one instance, the elderly person’s dog had died in the interim due to starvation and lack of water.

The sheriff’s department does not have the manpower to perform welfare checks in person for all the citizens who may be in need of such a service, so they set about researching how to develop a phone system that would make these checks possible.

It took the sheriff’s office two years to design and implement the program, and do it in such a way as to not use up scarce financial resources.

Using the technology already in place for the sheriff’s office’s reverse 911 system, and operating on a grant from the Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians, the plan became reality, and the Elder Orphans service was launched on Wednesday, Nov. 14. It is provided at no cost to the subscribers or the citizens of Madera County.

Residents can sign up for this free service by calling 559-675-7976.

Why Elder Orphans?

Sheriff Anderson cites statistics that Madera County is one of the fastest growing counties, with an ever increasing number of retirees.

A recent census shows that close to 10 percent of Madera County’s population is 65 and older, and that as many as 10,000 of them live alone. Often for reasons beyond their control, more and more senior citizens are being forced to fend for themselves.

How Elder Orphans is designed to work –

An automated computer system stores subscriber names, telephone numbers, home addresses, next of kin contact information and designated call times.

Subscribers receive a phone call with a pre-recorded message that prompts them to respond electronically. Push the #1 button to confirm the message has been received, and indicating he or she is OK. Push the #2 button if the subscriber requests emergency assistance. Pushing the #2 button transfers the subscriber to the Sheriff’s Communications Center.

If a subscriber does not answer after a preset number of calls, the Sheriff’s Emergency Dispatch Center will be alerted, and someone will be dispatched for a welfare check.

If the subscriber plans to leave town, the Madera County Sheriff’s Department must be notified to stop the service temporarily. Upon the subscriber’s return home, he or she will be required to notify the Sheriff’s Department so that the service can resume.

If a subscriber has a change to their phone number or address, they must notify the sheriff’s office. The system is only as good as the information provided.

Contact information will not be shared with anyone else. The information provided is used for notification purposes only.

By adopting the Elder Orphans program and utilizing the advantages it has to offer our senior community, Sheriff Anderson hopes subscribers can find peace of mind knowing that “You are no longer alone, even if you live alone.”


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