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Waldo County Program Keeps Watchful Eye on Vulnerable Seniors
01/03/2014   Reported By: Jay Field

It's hard being elderly, disabled or both, especially if you live alone in an isolated, rural area. Medical emergencies can go undetected. There aren't always neighbors right next door who can pop by. And the lack of human contact can breed a deep, pervasive loneliness. In Waldo County, a small group of shut-ins has signed agreements to call the county's emergency dispatch center every morning to check in.

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The dispatchers get just as much out of these short, daily conversations as the elderly callers on the other end of the line.

The calls start coming in a little after 6:00 AM. Most people call around the same time each day. Alonzo Perkins, who lives in Knox, usually calls a little before eight.

"So what are you doing today Alonzo? I was getting worried about you. It's past eight o'clock, you haven't called," said dispatcher Mike Larrivee to Perkins.

Their discussion covered a range of topics today.

Of course there's the weather:
"It's supposed to warm up tomorrow and be in the 40s on Monday," Larrivee said.

And Perkins' health:
"Ah, you better get it looked at," Larrivee said.

And Perkins' favorite sports teams.
"Red Sox need him? Oh well," said Larrivee.

Perkins would keep talking if Larivee would let him. But this is the 911 center for the entire county.

"Alonzo...I've got to run," Larrivee said.

"He's a very friendly Friendly Caller," Larrivee said.

Dispatcher Andy Cardinale has had many long talks with Alonzo, as part of Waldo County's Friendly Caller program.

"And we're his connection to the outside world. So it's good he has us to talk to," said Cardinale.

To be a Friendly Caller, elderly and disabled residents in the county commit to calling an emergency dispatcher by ten every morning to let them know they're okay. 17 people are currently participating in the program, which began eight years ago. If dispatchers don't hear from someone by 10, they call them. If no one picks up, a police officer or sheriff's deputy heads out to check on them.

"In the city, especially in apartment buildings, you have people right next door to you," Cardinale said. "Whereas, in a rural area, you might have a house that...your nearest neighbor is a mile away. Having someone close, as they feel we are, is important to these people."

Meantime, these people, and the daily conversations they share with them, have become just as important to Cardinale and his colleagues.

During our day we get some from very stressful [9-1-1] calls," Cardinale said. "Having the Friendly Caller program, it's a relief to talk to them versus all of the calls we get all day."

"Hello, how are you? Not too bad," said dispatcher Katy Dakin.

She is on the phone with the Belfast police a little bit after 10 when one of the Friendly Callers hasn't called in.

"Can you go check on Lorraine Page for me," Dakin asks the Belfast police.

Twenty minutes later, a police cruiser pulls into Lorraine's driveway. Belfast Police officer Wendall Ward heads for the front door.

He knocks.

There's no answer.

Ward knocks again.

A few seconds go by, before a small woman in an overcoat appears at the end of the driveway.

"Hi Lorriane!" Officer Ward said. "Did you forget to call today?"

Lorraine's phone, it turns out, got temporarily disconnected. Later, inside her tiny apartment, she says her many health problems are a big reason she decided to become a Friendly Caller.

"I have diabetes," Page said. "I have a decaying spine. I have fibromyalgia, an ulcer."

She said she also has four different lung diseases.

"At times I just can't breath," she said. "And I could be laying here, struggling for breath or even unconscious because the lung problems are acting up. I could, at any moment, becoem even unable to use a phone to call for health. And knowing that they're looking out for me, it makes all the difference in life."

Waldo County emergency dispatchers said they have enough room to add an additional 33 Friendly Callers. But the callers must live in the area. The dispatchers said they have received calls recently from New Hampshire and other states, asking for information on how to start up similar programs.


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