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PROGRAM'S WATCHFUL EYE FOR SENIORS

The Zephyrhills program also offers a helping hand.

About six months ago, Zephyrhills Police Department Crime Prevention Supervisor Rob Mc- Kinney sat at a conference in Orlando, listening to the story of an elderly woman who was repeatedly raped by a nursing home staff member. She kept calling police, but officers chalked it up to dementia and told the nursing home staff to keep a better eye on her.

It took months for someone to investigate the case.

That story got him thinking, he said. Criminals target vulnerable populations, like seniors and children. And seniors are the fastest growing segment of the population nationwide.

If law enforcement has special prevention methods for children, he wondered, why don't they have them for seniors?

McKinney has spent the last four months developing Seniors and Law Enforcement Together, a multifaceted program designed to help Zephyrhills seniors avoid being the victims of crime.

The program is now open to all seniors living within the city limits. All they have to do is call the Police Department and a volunteer will help them sign up.

"The biggest thing is getting them out of feeling isolated and alone and letting them know that someone does care," Mc- Kinney said.

At the beginning of the program, officers will inspect participants' homes for safety. If locks or other security devices are inadequate, they'll get them replaced at no cost to the homeowner.

They'll also educate seniors about crimes that target the older population and how to avoid being a victim.

Finally, they'll assign a volunteer from their Citizens on Patrol program to contact each participant once a week to check in.

Participants will also have the option to enroll in Vial of Life, a program in which people put all of their medical information in a pill bottle that hangs inside their refrigerator. Vial of Life members have stickers on their front doors and refrigerators so emergency personnel know to look for their information.

McKinney said he looked at programs from around the state and the country to fashion the one in Zephyrhills, but he said none was as "holistic" as this one.

The services will benefit everyone, including police. For example, the information they gather working with seniors will identify people who might need extra help during evacuations, McKinney said.

Volunteers will also be able to refer seniors to other programs like CARES and Meals-on-Wheels, which have agreed to work with the program.

And the program is free to participants and won't cost the city a penny, McKinney said. The program is seeking funding through partnerships with local businesses.

Dawn Allison, executive director of Meals-on-Wheels East Pasco Inc., said the program will help immensely. She said people at Meals-on-Wheels deliver food to about 130 east Pasco homes during the summer and almost 200 during the winter, so they see needy seniors every day.

She said some seniors live in the worst neighborhoods, which is especially dangerous since they're already susceptible to crime.

But it's not just about security. They need companionship, too, and the volunteer contacts will provide that, McKinney said.

Allison said she refers to a lot of the seniors as "elder orphans" because they've outlived their spouses and family.

"I can think of a dozen people off the top of my head where we're the only people they see," she said. "Contact is definitely something they need."

McKinney hopes to start the program with about 20 participants and eventually expand it to the rest of the county. To do that, they'll need more volunteers and partners.

Marge Jarvis, 68, hopes to recruit volunteers. She began volunteering with Citizens on Patrol last winter and can't say enough good things about Seniors and Law Enforcement Together, which she's agreed to help coordinate. They're always looking for volunteers and she encouraged everyone to try it.

"How could you not do it?" she said. "It's a wonderful way to help people and get involved in the community."

Carrie Ritchie can be reached at critchie@sptimes.com.

Fast facts

More information

For information, or to enroll or volunteer, call Rob McKinney at (813) 780-0500.

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