A Senior-Savvy Police Force

Law enforcement personnel are often the first to notice that an older adult needs help.

Two smiling police officers

Emily often read the neighborhood blog, checking out notices of garage sales, lost pets and the occasional car prowl. One day, a new post appeared with the title, "SUSPICIOUS CHARACTER ROAMING THE BLOCK." When Emily opened the post, she was horrified to see a security video of her elderly father, who had Alzheimer's disease. Dad had moved in with Emily six months earlier. He enjoyed walking around the neighborhood, taking a special interest in gardens, which had been his lifelong hobby. The comments with the post were painful to read: "I've seen him, too." And, "Next time he's in our yard, I'm calling the cops." Sure enough—a few days later, there was a knock at the door, and a police officer was asking about Dad.

This is not an uncommon experience today. A growing number of elders are living independently in our communities, with fewer family members to see to their well-being. According to the American Geriatrics Society (AGS), "For older adults with complex care needs, police officers are often the first people on the scene for a health issue or concern." And yet, reports the AGS, "When police don't have essential information about how our health changes as we age, they may risk causing unintended harm."

Consider a few more typical scenarios:

  • An elderly jaywalker repeatedly fails to respond when a police officer commands him to stop. The officer eventually handcuffs the noncompliant man, causing bruises to his delicate skin. It turns out the man had hearing loss and could not hear the officer's commands.
  • Neighbors complain about unsanitary conditions in an older adult's apartment. The police officer answering the call is the first outsider to enter the hoarding elder's home in years, and must decide what to do.
  • A 911 operator receives frequent reports of thefts, trespassing and mysterious goings-on from the same number — yet each time officers arrive at the caller's home, they find no evidence of crime. The caller is an elderly woman with dementia who is suffering from delusions.
  • A caller is concerned that a senior neighbor is being mistreated. When the officer arrives at the home, the senior insists there's no problem — yet the demeanor of an adult child in the home raises red flags for the officer that something is amiss.
  • A frantic family member reports that their elderly father with dementia has wandered away. Department policy is to wait 24 hours before searching for a missing person — yet when a senior has Alzheimer's, waiting even a few hours raises the senior's risk of injury or death.
  • A driver is pulled over for suspicion of drunk driving, but the driver has actually suffered a stroke. An ambulance, not an arrest, is what's needed.

To help law enforcement better serve and protect our oldest citizens, many communities today are providing special training to help officers recognize and understand the changes of aging that might affect a senior's behavior and safety. These include vision and hearing loss, decreased speed and mobility, frailty, the effects of medications, and Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.

The AGS recently reported on an innovative collaboration between the San Francisco Police Department and geriatric care experts from the University of California, San Francisco, in which officers received training to help them develop expertise and empathy regarding seniors, and to familiarize them with Adult Protective Services and the range of community resources that are available for older adults.

The Alzheimer's Association also provides resources and training for law enforcement agencies, including Quick Tips for First Responders and the Safe Return Guide for Law Enforcement. Jim Lorentz of the Wheat Ridge, Colo., Police Department is providing training to members of the Denver Police Department through the Alzheimer's Association of Colorado. In a news release, Lorentz said, "As police officers, we are seeing more and more of these situations. How do we deal with people with afflictions like Alzheimer's? How do we prevent confrontations? Often, there are better and more effective ways to handle these situations."

Officer Lorentz and the Alzheimer's Association recommend the TALK approach for officers who are interacting with citizens who may have dementia:

Take it slow.

Ask simple questions.

Limit reality checks (for example, don’t expect the person to know what day it is).

Keep eye contact.

We can all advocate for better training for our police officers. And family members can help. Always let officers know about your loved one's relevant health conditions during an interaction. Be proactive! Get to know the police at your local precinct. And get to know your neighbors. Together we can all create a safer environment for our oldest citizens.

Right at Home, Inc. is a national organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for those we serve. We fulfill that mission through a dedicated network of locally owned providers of in home care services.