Aid for seniors arrives

Steamboat ElderWatch Program comes to life

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It used to be when Hazel Ferguson went to her grandson's middle school football games, the closest she could get to the field was the parking lot.

The 69-year-old woman, who has diabetes and has suffered a stroke, could not get to the field because the high grass and gravel parking lot made it impossible to push a wheelchair there.

Her husband, Jim Ferguson, had to give up his five-mile walks along Routt County Road 179, the county road that runs by their home in Milner, for fear of leaving his wife home alone.

Then, this spring, Jim Ferguson came up with the idea of building a cart that would let him push his wife over rough terrain. He asked Routt County sheriff's Deputy Elise Andres if her children had any spare bicycle tires he could use to build the cart.

It turned out Andres could get her hands on more resources than just bike tires.

She suggested that the couple have an "off-road" wheelchair designed and built for Hazel Ferguson. Andres contacted Steamboat Springs High School shop teacher Matthew Craig, who had four students draft a plan and build a model out of straws.

Sore Saddle Cyclery donated three lightweight titanium tires and PSA Health Care donated the wheelchair. The shop drawings were taken to Chad and Dan Yeager, of Certified Welding and Fabrication.

The Yeagers were able to weld the original chrome wheelchair to mountain-bike handlebars and add brakes that connect to two side mountain-bike tires. A child's tire was attached to the front for stabilization and a wheelie bar was put on the back to prevent the chair from tipping over.

Hazel Ferguson now rides down C.R. 179, her husband pushing her for two miles. And she has been able to sit near the sideline and watch her grandson play football.

This summer, Jim Ferguson built a platform on the back of their motor home, and they took the chair on the road.

"It's been a life-saver," Hazel Ferguson said.

For about 18 months, Andres has been working with the statewide ElderWatch program, which works to reduce financial exploitation and other crimes against senior citizens.

Jim Ferguson's request did not fall under the program's parameters, but it was typical of the needs Andres found when she started making contacts with seniors. Under the supervision of Andres, the ElderWatch program has taken on a life of its own in Routt County.

"We are really one of the first counties to take ElderWatch to the next step," Andres said. "A lot of (agencies) have done the training, but it hasn't gone any further than that. The idea is to prevent crime in the community, but it is a much boarder spectrum than that. You are going to find needs that need to be meet. You don't just not listen or walk away. You make sure you help them."

The ElderWatch Program is a joint project between Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar and the AARP. On Friday, Salazar is coming to Steamboat to talk about senior issues, ElderWatch and concerns about the financial exploitation of seniors.

Colorado Sate Sen. Jack Taylor, R-Steamboat Springs, and Rep. Al White, R-Winter Park, are expected to attend the forum.

Andres heard about the ElderWatch program two years ago and was sent to a class on elder abuse hosted by AARP. With AARP's help, Andres was able to bring a trainer to educate local law enforcement and social services agencies about elder abuse.

What they learned hit home.

Andres and Sheriff John Warner easily can list the number of cases of senior exploitation in Routt County.

They include a man who was receiving 40 pounds of magazines a month because he could not say no to the magazine companies calling for subscriptions. Another man was writing blank checks to his caregiver, who was then cashing them for thousands of dollars, taking $5,000 to $10,000 in a 18-month period. Warner said there have been countless home-improvement scams involving traveling companies that offer to put asphalt on driveways or put on new roofs, only to have the work wash away in the next rain.

Statistics show that 5 percent of seniors are victims of elder abuse and only one in five cases is believed to be reported.

Of those cases, an estimated 40 percent involve financial exploitation. Financial abuse can be found in credit card fraud, real property transfers, check use, telemarketing and sweepstakes scams, home-improvement scams, taking of personal effects and using an elder's ATM card.

"The difference between the elders and us, the younger generation, is the elders fall victim to this stuff much easier. They grew up in a generation where a handshake and a verbal contract was all that you needed," Warner said.

Elder abuse is an exploding national problem that is going unpunished and unreported, Andres said.

Andres said seniors often are embarrassed to admit to falling for a scam.

"Any victim of a crime, a lot of times, feels (like) if only I would have said no or would have done this differently. There is shame that they shouldn't have fallen for this crime," Andres said.

Warner also said because the senior population holds much of the country's wealth -- 70 percent of the wealth in the United States is controlled by people older than 50 -- it often is targeted.

"If you were a crook and you were looking for an easy place to get some money, where would you go? Probably to someone over the age of 50," he said.

And many times, the victims are being abused by a caregiver or family member, which means they are afraid of reprisal and might not have anyone else to trust.

In the ElderWatch program, law enforcement officers were trained to look for indicators of elder abuse, such as checking how much mail they receive and how much food they have and learning to ask questions such as who does the grocery shopping and how does the senior get to the grocery store.

"I think the best kind of program is being very proactive and educating folks before they become the victims of crime. We are going to stay with this," Warner said.

Andres said a large part of her job goes beyond fighting crime. She is developing a group of seniors she checks in on once a week. And as with the Fergusons, if she hears about a need, she works with the community to try to fill it.

One of her first senior contacts came from an ambulance call. A 81-year-old man was having heart problems, and Andres arrived on the scene to give cardiopulmonary resuscitation. The next day, she returned to the house to check on his 80-year-old wife.

From there, a relationship developed. Through weekly visits, Andres discovered Chester and JoNell Backes were spending close to $700 a month for medicine. She also discovered they were eligible for Medicaid but were not on it.

She helped get the paperwork started and for the last three months of Chester's life, the medical bills were drastically reduced.

"The last few years, everything we had went out for medicine or doctor bills," JoNell Backes said. "I just don't know how we would have made it without (Medicaid)."

As part of the ElderWatch program, Andres helped put the Backes on the no-call list to reduce the number of telemarketers and potential scam artists calling them.

Andres also worked with a local nonprofit, One-to-One, and businesses to have the Backeses' kitchen floor retiled and to help insulate the roof of their daughter's house. Their daughter lives nearby and is also a widow.

By helping with such projects, Andres said she hopes to build trust with the seniors and that the program will grow by word of mouth.

"That is key right there, to let them know we are there and if one day they are a victim of a crime, they are already comfortable with the sheriff's office or police office," Andres said.

Just days after Chester Backes died, JoNell received a call from a man looking to remodel the house. Andres said JoNell already knew which questions to ask and to say no.

Although Andres might not have caught a lot of criminals in her time working on ElderWatch, she has other fulfilling moments in the program. Like the morning she was driving on C.R. 179, just a few days after the Fergusons received the off-road wheelchair.

"It was 7 a.m. and there they were, right on the bridge looking over the Yampa. He was pushing her in her wheelchair. I wish I had my camera. It was very satisfying," Andres said.

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