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Gatekeepers can provide safety for elderly

By Marianne Mills
Juneau Empire, May 28, 2003

Alaska In Juneau, Alaska, a police officer conducted a welfare check on an elderly woman when a neighbor notified him that her water was about to be shut off due to lack of payment. He discovered Sarah, age 84, weak, malnourished and disoriented, living in a home that hadn't been cleaned for months. The policeman contacted Southeast Senior Services (SESS) looking for assistance. The SESS care coordinator went to Sarah's home, provided a comprehensive evaluation of her situation, and made the necessary contacts. After a brief hospitalization due to dehydration, Sarah returned home.

The care coordinator got to know Sarah, arranged to have Sarah's home cleaned, assisted with paying back bills, and lined up other services for Sarah. Now Sarah can safely remain in her own home. The care coordinator will check on her regularly to see how she's doing, serve as her advocate and arrange any other services needed.

The neighbor and police officer may have saved Sarah's life. Without knowing it, they served as gatekeepers, noticing an elder in need and calling senior services for help. Gatekeepers include employees of businesses, utility companies, and government agencies who have contact with the most isolated elderly in the regular course of their work day. A postal carrier notices mail accumulating in the mailbox of an elderly man who lives alone. The newspaper carrier notices newspapers piling up at an elder's home and when he knocks at the door, no one answers. The bank teller notices an elder's bank account building up and none of his bills being paid. They are all gatekeepers.

"Juneau is a very caring, responsive community," said Janet Lumiansky, care coordination supervisor for Southeast Senior Services. "People just need to know who to refer to when they have concerns."

In response to the growing number of queries from Juneau citizens about elders at risk, Southeast Senior Services has begun the Gatekeeper Program. Juneau's Gatekeeper Program is based on a model developed in Spokane, Wash., in 1978 - time-proven to save elders' lives.

The role of the gatekeeper is to look for clues or red flags that may indicate that the older person is in trouble or potentially at risk. The most common indications involve personal appearance, conditions of the home, the person's mental or emotional state, physical losses, personality changes, economic problems and isolation. Since one in three older Americans lives alone without nearby family members and many are reluctant or unable to seek help, it's up to community members to find them. With the help of gatekeepers, older persons who have fallen through the cracks will receive the assistance they need to safely live in their homes for as long as possible.

All employers are invited to participate in the Gatekeeper Program, which trains employees to identify problems that signify an elder may be in trouble. They also learn how to respond and who to contact to get the help the elder needs. Respect for the elder and confidentiality are two of the most important values of the Gatekeeper Program.

Serving as a gatekeeper establishes good public relations and is a personally rewarding experience. The Gatekeeper Program gives Juneau citizens a chance to show senior citizens that we really care about them and are there to support them.


Copyright 2002 Global Action on Aging
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