“Elder Orphan” program recognized

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, Madera County Sheriff John Anderson’s office launched a twice-daily telephonic welfare check for seniors living alone. An automated call would go out to those enrolled, who would be instructed to confirm receipt of the call by pressing the number one. If attempts to reach the subscriber failed, a member of the sheriff’s office would be sent to their home.

Now in its third year, the program’s working title, “Elder Orphans,” came about, following a letter 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, the gentleman explained in the span of three months, three of his neighbors in his mountain mobile park had died. And since they lived alone, 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 that three people who lived in such close proximity weren’t missed.

The plea for help touched a nerve with Anderson, who assigned Erica Stuart, his public information officer, to research ways to address the problem.

At that time, it was estimated as many as 11,000 seniors lived alone, and the nearest relative might reside elsewhere in the state, with many out of state.

Through the course of researching programs, a 79-year-old man’s body was found in his Coarsegold home, only after relatives requested a check because they were unable to reach him for a week.

Automated welfare check programs weren’t new - 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.

In the end, the department chose Everbridge – a unified critical communications system which is used worldwide to deliver interactive support for both operational and emergency incidents.

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

In 2014 the program was submitted to Innovations in American Government Awards at Harvard for consideration. In December 2015, the program was named a semi-finalist.

“We are honored that Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation recognized our program, and we hope that other communities throughout the United States would duplicate our efforts,” Anderson said.

Anderson and Stuart both retired from the Madera County Sheriff’s Office in 2015.

Erica Stuart