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Building bridges: police and seniors together.

In Farmington Hills, Michigan, the police department developed a special program to combat a problem that haunts many elderly citizens--loneliness. Developed with the assistance of the city's Senior Adult Division, the Police and Seniors Together (PAST) Program matches police volunteers with elderly residents to promote a strong personal bond. In many cases, the officers' visits represent virtually the only contact these senior residents have with the outside world.

PAST benefits all involved. It allows the police department to demonstrate concern for an often-forgotten segment of the city's population which, in turn, enhances the department's standing throughout the entire community. More importantly, however, PAST provides a structured environment for officers to meet the needs of lonely and isolated elderly residents.

THE PROGRAM

The idea for PAST grew out of a February 1991, training conference sponsored by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) held at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. Among other subjects, the seminar addressed the impact of criminal activity upon the elderly and offered suggestions for assisting senior citizens in the face of rising crime rates. After this conference, leaders of the Farmington Hills Police Department met to develop a program to address the needs of senior residents in their community. Eight months later, the PAST Program became operational.

Cooperative Effort

The key to PAST's successful implementation is the cooperation between the police department and the city's Senior Adult Division. The adult division acts as an advocate for the city's senior population--particularly those 85 years of age and older. On a monthly basis, the division provides approximately 12,000 hours of direct service assistance to the elderly.

As part of PAST, the division uses its resources to select eligible seniors for the program, primarily the homebound who have little or no social support. Evaluators ensure that individuals are physically able to engage in conversations averaging about 30 minutes.

The division then pairs these residents with police volunteers who share similar interests. Currently, 12 officers participate in the program. Each officer is assigned to one senior.

Division staffers also provide sensitivity training for the officers. The sessions include such topics as recognizing the signs of depression in the elderly, deterioration of seniors' sense organs, senior lifestyle myths, and perhaps most importantly, the value of laughter when interacting with the elderly. The instructors videotape these sessions to use when new volunteers join the program.

Officer Visits

PAST operational guidelines encourage officers to interact frequently with their seniors. This includes on- and off-duty visits and telephone calls. The volunteers spend whatever on-duty time they can provide--ideally, at least one visit a week--without detracting from their other policing responsibilities. However, early in the relationships, officers explain the department's 4-month shift rotation cycle and prepare the seniors for the possibility that the officers may be called upon to leave suddenly in the event of an emergency.

During visits, officers strive to make the seniors feel more secure and connected to their community. As the relationships grow, the visits become more routine, and the senior citizens come to view the officers' presence as a normal and positive aspect of their lives.

While these contacts offer obvious benefits to the elderly residents participating in the program, the interaction also enriches the officers' lives on both a personal and professional level. Many of the police volunteers have limited access to the wisdom and experiences of senior citizens. During their visits, officers not only gain an historical perspective of their community but they also discuss issues and viewpoints that they might not otherwise encounter.

In addition, in many cases, the elderly residents become surrogate family members to the officers, their spouses, and their children. Several officers include their seniors in holiday meals and other special occasions.

In one case, an officer purchased his senior a police scanner so that she could "keep track of her officer." In addition to a new sense of purpose, the scanner provides the woman contact with the outside world, reducing the sense of isolation she once felt.

Another officer learned of a much-loved painting hobby that his senior match abandoned several years earlier. The officer encouraged the man to resume his craft and made arrangements with a local art store to supply him with paints. The 102-year-old man has since completed several works.

Controls

PAST incorporates several controls designed to ensure that the program uses community resources effectively, while providing the best possible service to the elderly participants. After making the initial matches, the city's adult division assists in maintaining the program. Staff members make periodic followup calls to the seniors and distribute a biannual evaluation to both the elderly participants and the officers. Should staff evaluators determine that a relationship does not benefit both parties, they can take steps to locate a more appropriate match. Fortunately, this has not been necessary.

In addition, members of the adult division, the officers, and the chief meet every 3 months to share stories and propose solutions to any problems that may arise. These meetings also provide officers with an opportunity to inform others in the program how their seniors are doing.

CONCLUSION

Senior citizens are the fastest growing segment of the American population. Unfortunately, a multitude of factors combine to make many of today's seniors vulnerable to both crime and loneliness. The Police and Seniors Together Program provides a proactive approach to combating both of these forces.

But, as the Farmington Hills Police Department discovered, this type of effort produces residual positive effects. Officers form strong personal bonds with residents who then reaffirm the officers' positive contributions to the community. Members of the community, in turn, perceive the police in a new light as they see officers caring for elderly residents.

The PAST Program adds a new dimension to the lives of senior citizens. With the "greying" of America continuing into the next century, and with the needs of the elderly population increasing, a look at the PAST may truly be a glimpse into the future.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Federal Bureau of Investigation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Dwyer, Wiliam J.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:May 1, 1993
Words:992
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