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Published: Sunday, 2/13/2005

Deputies make house calls

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Special Deputy Bill Dickerson visits periodically with Lima resident Lady Alice Hurd during an 'Are You OK' visit. Special Deputy Bill Dickerson visits periodically with Lima resident Lady Alice Hurd during an 'Are You OK' visit.
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LIMA, Ohio - At 81, Rosie Cartwright is in good health and even better spirits as she opens her apartment door to greet Bill Dickerson, a special deputy with the Allen County sheriff's office.

The two chat about the recent ice storm and how the senior citizens in Mrs. Cartwright's building coped with the on-again, off-again electricity.

"Well, I take it that you're not having any problems now," Mr. Dickerson said.

"I'm just fine," she said, obviously pleased that someone was asking.

Mrs. Cartwright is one of more than 200 senior citizens in Allen County who get regular visits from a deputy or volunteer with the sheriff's office. As part of a senior visitation program started in 2000, the deputy asks if they have any problems, tests their smoke alarm, makes sure the bushes haven't grown up around the windows, and mostly just visits with them.

Mrs. Cartwright is also among 26 seniors who get a phone call from the sheriff's office every morning at the same time from a volunteer who simply asks, "Are you OK?"

"It's reassuring," said Mrs. Cartwright, who is widowed and has no children. "During the day, you get out to get your mail or take out the trash and people see you, but it's at night that if you would happen to keel over with a stroke or fall in the bathroom that no one would know."

She knows that if she couldn't answer the phone when the sheriff's office calls at 6:45 a.m., someone would soon be out to check on her.

"It's a sense of security," Mrs. Cartwright said.

The programs for Allen County seniors are not typical services for a sheriff's office to provide. But those who know longtime Allen County Sheriff Dan Beck know he's anything but conventional.

"Our sheriff is very public-minded. He's a sheriff for the community," said Sgt. Garry Ricker, who runs the senior programs. "No, it's not a traditional role, but the service we provide is important. Some people have family members who check on them, but not all do."

Sheriff Beck said the program "gives us a wonderful intelligence network, if you will, into the world of senior citizens." Many older residents will share problems they or their neighbors are having only because they've gotten to know the sheriff's deputies who visit them.

"You can sit around and wait to take calls or be proactive and get out there and talk to people," he said.

The sheriff said the program only costs about $8,000 a year to operate because it relies heavily on volunteers. Batteries for smoke alarms, special "emergency beacon" light bulbs, and other supplies are donated by area businesses.

Lady Alice Hurd, 79, said she's no invalid but she signed up for the visitation program soon after it started and encouraged her neighbors to do the same.

"I like to stay on the safe side of things," she said.

The sheriff's office gave her a recycled cellular phone that can only be used to dial 911.

"A lot of people won't go out at night, but I'll go out walking if it's a nice night and I take my cell phone," she said.

Those who live in their own homes are given special light bulbs for their front porch lights that can signal to their neighbors or police that they have a problem. If the light switch is flipped twice, the bulb will continually flash.

Sergeant Ricker recalled one elderly woman who fell and was able to use her cane to trigger the emergency beacon. A neighbor saw it and came to help.

Deputies and volunteers - all of whom have gone through the citizen's police academy put on by the sheriff's office - have discovered any number of problems during their home visits, he said, including the recent discovery of a gas leak at a home where a woman said she had been having headaches and nausea for several months.

"One of our volunteers is a retired firefighter. He detected an odor in the house and checked for a gas leak," Sergeant Ricker said. "We called the gas company and they had someone out within an hour."

They try to discourage seniors from falling for sweepstakes and other solicitations and work with them when they get conned by unscrupulous handymen or even family members.

Through the call program, they've checked on several individuals who did not answer and found them deceased.

One woman who signed up for the program told Sergeant Ricker, "I don't want to lay here. I don't want my family to find me like that." Only a few days later she didn't answer the phone and, when deputies responded, they found she had died.

Mary Steele, an outreach specialist with the Allen County Council on Aging, said the sheriff's program meets a need other agencies don't always have time for.

"That program has the opportunity to get out on a more social basis so to speak because a lot of times folks just appreciate having a visitor," she said.

Mrs. Cartwright said it's easier to ask for advice or assistance now that she's gotten to know the sheriff's representatives.

"I just think it's wonderful what they do," Mrs. Cartwright said. "During this big ice storm I would have felt very comfortable in calling the sheriff's office and saying, 'Help me.' "

Contact Jennifer Feehan at: jfeehan@theblade.com or 419-353-5972.



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