Harrison County

Program that calls the elderly, disabled gives participants peace of mind

Irma Hargis, nearly 82, no longer worries about how long it could take someone to find her if she got sick overnight or fell and couldn’t call for help.

She knows Biloxi police will come check on her if she doesn’t answer a phone call the next morning.

Hargis is among 14 senior citizens enrolled in the Biloxi Police Department’s RUOK program. It’s a telephone assurance program that calls the elderly or physically disabled once a day at the time of their choice to make sure they’re OK. It’s a program offered by police departments around the nation who buy the computer software. Gulfport police also offer the program.

“RUOK really gives me peace of mind,” said Hargis, who lives in an apartment at an independent living community.

She has a daughter who is a nurse at a local school and a son who lives in Virginia. But it’s what could happen overnight that concerns Hargis.

“I’m very independent,” she said. “I don’t like to bother my daughter if I don’t have to.”

Hargis chose 8 a.m. as her call time. She wakes up at 7 a.m. Coffee’s the first thing on her mind.

“If I fell at 7 o’clock, I wouldn’t have to wait long past 8 for police to show up,” she said.

Life on her own terms

The daily calls help Hargis live life on her own terms.

She uses her microwave instead of a stove for cooking and warming food; she had forgotten she had left food on the stove a few times. She rides a Coast Transit Authority bus to do her weekly grocery shopping because she wants to do it herself, though her daughter is willing to help her.

Hargis waters her seven rose bushes year-round. She enjoys using her computer to research genealogy for family histories and playing video games. And she takes an afternoon nap when she can.

“I don’t want to be one of those who dies at home and isn’t found soon,” she said. “I just give it all up to the good Lord and I know Biloxi police are looking out for me.”

That possibility is one of the things participants say concern them, Biloxi police Capt. Larry Murphy said.

More than half of women age 75 and older live alone, while older men are more likely to be married, according to statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

RUOK uses computer software to make the phone calls. Participants press a number on their phone so police know they’re OK. The computer makes a second call if the first call isn’t picked up. If there’s still no response, a dispatcher sends a police unit to the person’s home.

Police have come to check on Hargis once. A neighbor was in the hospital. Hargis had gone over to check on the neighbor’s cat and had left her cellphone at home.

“All of a sudden, police drove up and I was really impressed,” Hargis said. “I know many other senior citizens who could benefit from it if they just knew about the program.”

Sign-up is easy

Police make it easy for the elderly and physically handicapped to sign up through the department’s community relations division. Through a phone call, they provide their information and can let police know if a neighbor or someone nearby has a spare key to their home.

An officer can drive to the home to get the person’s signature on paperwork that includes a waiver in case of damages. Police could need to force their way into a home by breaking a window or a door, Murphy said.

A personal touch

Biloxi’s RUOK software hasn’t been working properly recently, so police dispatchers have been making the calls themselves, Murphy said. Dispatchers set timers so they know when to call each person at the right time. Updated software should be installed soon, he said.

Some participants have said the dispatchers’ calls are the only conversations they have day to day, Angie Myrick said. She’s been a police dispatcher for 16 years.

Myrick and two other dispatchers recently delivered Christmas gifts to Hargis and other RUOK participants.

“I got a beautiful basket with a cup that has my own name on it, a blanket and other gifts,” Hargis said. “It was so wonderful and thoughtful.”

Hargis said four other people in her retirement community signed up for RUOK after reading about it in a newsletter.

“I always thought I knew all the ways that police protect us,” she said. “Now I know their protection goes even further.”

The Gulfport Police Department has 29 participants in its RUOK program, Sgt. Joshua Bromen said.

Robin Fitzgerald: 228-896-2307, @robincrimenews

To enroll in RUOK in Biloxi or Gulfport, call:

Biloxi Police Department Community Relations Divison, 228-385-3033.

Gulfport Police Department Community Relations Division, 228-868-5703.