A Nationwide Chessed

Sometimes it takes a tragedy to wake people up. In 2013, police officers in the little central Texas town of Belton found an elderly woman who had passed away days before on the floor of her home.

“That alone spoke volumes to us,” Detective Sgt. Kim Hamilton recalled. “We knew there was a need to check on our senior residents.” Belton started a phone checkup system that year.

It turns out that Belton is not alone in making sure that the elderly who live by themselves are not dangerously out of touch with the outside world. Hundreds of police departments in small towns and rural areas around the country have gotten the wakeup call and organized phone checkups on the elderly in their areas, according to The Washington Post.

The results have been, not surprisingly, very positive. “It helps ensure for the elderly person or their family that a phone call is being made every morning, that everything is OK. We’ve gotten incredible feedback on this program,” said Cmdr. Jack Vaccaro of the Lighthouse Point Police Department in Florida, which has nine seniors in its automated daily-call program.

The trend is coast-to-coast. Biloxi, Mississippi; Brentwood, Missouri; Amherst, Massachusetts; Orangeburg County in South Carolina, and San Diego County are just a few of the other places that have implemented such call systems.

The reason it’s limited mostly to small towns (Belton’s population is about 20,000) is because in those places the number of elderly who can benefit from the service is small, so the resources needed to keep track of them are correspondingly modest. But in big cities, the large numbers involved would also require many more people to run the system, and the cost is much higher.

In most cases, the call is computer-generated. The elder is asked to press a number to signal all is well. If there’s no response, follow-up calls are made, and a policeman is dispatched if necessary to investigate.

This nationwide chessed is not, strictly speaking, a law enforcement responsibility, but a social one, and naturally civilians have also been recruited to help.

In San Diego County, for example, the sheriff’s department’s You Are Not Alone program has 452 senior volunteers calling 334 older adults at least five times a week and visiting them at least weekly.

Needless to say, the personal contact makes a difference. Sometimes it’s the difference between life and death. In San Diego, no one answered the door when a volunteer went to visit an 86-year-old woman last year. She noticed the mail had been piling up outside the door. Realizing something might be wrong, she summoned the police, who climbed through a window and found the woman on the floor, severely dehydrated. They were just in time to save her life.

For the elderly who live alone in the cities, other solutions are available. There’s a wide range of medical alert systems, some using wristbands or neck pendants, some offering base stations that can be contacted from anywhere on one’s property, including the yard or mailbox. Call-in centers are now certified for reliability, and Consumer Reports has a product/price survey of the entire market.

The disadvantage is cost. Although the systems are not outrageously expensive, expensive is a relative term, and for the elderly, who often are indigent as well, the cost can seem prohibitive. That’s the advantage of the small-town call systems run by police — they’re free to the people who sign up for them.

It cannot be emphasized too much, though, that automated calls, and even personal calls and visits, constitute a b’di’eved, and are not the best solution. No matter how responsible and reassuring, no matter how caring and compassionate, the people manning these centers are strangers. They aren’t family members; in most cases, they don’t know the person they’re looking after.

While a computer or a stranger can ascertain whether someone’s still there in their home, presumably safe for the time being, they cannot assess their overall wellbeing, their emotional, psychological or spiritual condition. Along with loneliness, discouragement and despair can set in without anyone knowing it, making the elder that much more vulnerable to accident and illness.

Call centers and alert devices are only the barest substitutes for a family member, friend or neighbor who really knows the person and is there not only to help but to be that vital human link to the outside world. Nothing can replace human companionship and caring.

For our community, the requirement to take care of our parents and grandparents is mandated not only by human compassion and social responsibility, but first and foremost by the Torah. Kibbud av va’eim is said to be among the most difficult of mitzvos, and one of the difficulties is that it’s hard to do from a distance.