Maine County Watches Out For Citizens Confined To Their Homes

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Getting through a tough winter can be especially challenging for elderly or disabled people living in rural areas. There aren't always next door neighbors who can pop by to check on them. One county in Maine has devised a way to make sure these people are alright.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Getting through a tough winter can be especially challenging for elderly or disabled people living alone in rural areas. Medical emergencies can go unnoticed. 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 one Maine county, a small group of shut-ins has agreed to call the county's 911 center every morning to check in.

Here's Maine Public Radio's Jay Field.

JAY FIELD, BYLINE: The calls start coming in around day break.

(SOUNDBITE OF A RINGING PHONE)

FIELD: Most people phone around the same time. Mike Larivee, a 911 dispatcher in Waldo County, on Maine's mid-coast, takes a call at little after 8. It's Alonzo.

MIKE LARIVEE: So what are you doing today, Alonzo? I was getting worried about you. Its past 8 o'clock, you haven't called.

FIELD: Larivee gets an update on Alonzo's health...

LARIVEE: Ah, you better get it looked at.

FIELD: ...on his favorite sports teams.

LARIVEE: Red Sox need him? Yeah, well.

FIELD: Alonzo will talk as long as Larivee will let him. But this is the emergency command center for the entire county.

LARIVEE: Alonzo, I've got to run.

ANDY CARDINALE: He's a very friendly Friendly Caller.

FIELD: Andy Cardinale is another Waldo County dispatcher. He's has had many long talks with Alonzo, one of 17 elderly and disabled residents taking part in the county's Friendly Caller program.

CARDINALE: In a rural area, you might have a house that your nearest neighbor is a mile away.

FIELD: Cardinale says that can be a dangerous situation, especially during the long winters here.

CARDINALE: During the ice storm, especially when there was power outages, we got rides for them to shelters. And that's our goal, is to make sure they're safe every day.

FIELD: Allowing older residents to stay in their homes isn't an expressed goal of the program, though officials acknowledge it may be byproduct of all the daily calls. Routine checking up on shut-ins has historically been left to nonprofits and social service agencies. It doesn't cost Waldo County anything to run the Friendly Caller program. Callers simply sign up and agree to contact a dispatcher by 10:00 a.m. every morning.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hello.

KATY DAKIN: How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Not too bad.

FIELD: It's a little after 10 on a snowy Friday and dispatcher Katy Dakin is on the phone with the Belfast, Maine Police Department. One of the Friendly Callers hasn't called.

DAKIN: Can you go check on Lorraine Page for me?

FIELD: Twenty minutes later, a police cruiser pulls into Page's driveway. Officer Wendall Ward heads for the front door.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

FIELD: No answer.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

FIELD: Suddenly, a small woman in an overcoat walks out from behind the house.

OFFICER WENDALL WARD: Hi, Lorraine. Did you forget to call today?

LORRAINE PAGE: No, I didn't forget.

FIELD: Lorraine Page's phone, it turns out, got temporarily disconnected. Page, who's 66, says her many health problems are a big reason she decided to become a Friendly Caller.

PAGE: I have diabetes. I have a decaying spine. I have fibromyalgia, an ulcer...

FIELD: And a lot of lung problems.

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

FIELD: Waldo County dispatchers say they could handle as many as 40 Friendly Callers a day. They say the 911 center has also been getting calls from other states expressing interest in the program.

For NPR News, I'm Jay Field.

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