Written by Sandy Campbell, APCO Institute Curriculum Writer
The baby-boomers generation (an American term referring to the large generation born in the two decades after World War II, generally 1946-1964) is poised to begin celebrating 60th birthdays this year. This generation grew up in the psychedelic '60s with defining events such as the Vietnam War, the draft protest, the Beatles and Woodstock. The baby boomers will join the over-65 population segment through the years 2010-2030, causing an upward spiral in our elderly population.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the elderly population (age 65+) has tripled since 1900. Today, people 85 and older represent the fastest-growing segment of the elderly population. For people born in 1899, the odds of reaching age 100 were 400 to 1. For those born in 1987, the odds greatly improved: 87 to 1. Life expectancy also saw a dramatic increase in the same time period from age 49 to 77.6. The 2000 census counted nearly 35 million people - or roughly one in every eight Americans today - as above the age of 65.
These facts and figures compel public safety telecommunicators to examine proper procedures and techniques for handling requests from elderly callers. Always remember: callers, whether age 65 or 6, are our customers. They are important people, not interruptions. And by serving callers to the best of our ability, we fulfill our obligations.
As with all call-processing, proper telephone communication techniques should be applied to calls from the elderly:
- Speak directly into the telephone.
- Use appropriate tone and manner of speech.
- Show interest in the caller.
- Take charge of the conversation.
- Explain holds, pauses and delays.
- Explain referrals.
- Never argue with the caller.
- End the call positively and politely.
To process these calls properly, it is important to understand the thought processes in the mind of the elderly, as they may organize thoughts differently from younger people. They may seem confused and unable to express themselves completely. They may need to provide information in a chronological order, starting "at the beginning" of the events, instead of coming right to the point of the telephone call. They may experience some confusion attributable to medications commonly prescribed for conditions that affect the elderly. Confusion can also by a symptom of depression, which is prevalent in the elderly population, rather than a simple, normal aging process.
Telecommunicators must pose specific questions one at a time and wait for each answer, as elderly callers may process information more slowly. Special issues - hearing loss, senility, dementia and rising suicide rates - in these age groups present additional challenges to telecommuicators.
Hearing loss is the most common chronic condition of elderly Americans. It is estimated that 25 percent of the population above the age of 65 and 50 percent of the population above the age of 75 suffer a hearing loss. In those above age 85, these figures increase to 80 percent, which means four in every five individuals in this age group suffer from hearing loss. And the percentage is expected to rise as the baby-boomer generation enters this age group.
Hearing loss attributed to aging normally is a slow process that sneaks up on individuals. High-pitched sounds are the first missed. Then come (or got) the "s" and "th" sounds, which are hard to distinguish, as is a child's voice or a woman's voice.
If there are indications a caller is having difficulty hearing you, screaming or raising your voice will not help the situation. To effectively handle the call, slow your rate of speech, deepen your voice and speak (enunciate) clearly.
When taking a call, you also can ask to speak to another person, if someone else is available. Time is critical when dealing with hearing-impaired individuals who may have delayed reporting the incident due to difficulties when communicating with others.
Alzheimer's (also known as Old Timer's) disease is the most common form of dementia or senility. It is not part of the normal aging process. Alzheimer's is a devastating disease or brain disorder. It involves a gradual loss of mental functions, which impairs memory, thinking and behavior, and is considered fatal. According to the Alzheimer's Association, someone with normal age-related memory changes may include the following:
- Forgets part of an experience.
- Often remembers later.
- Usually is able to follow written/spoken directions.
- Usually is able to care for self.
Contrast that to the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease:
- Forgets entire experiences.
- Rarely remembers later.
- Gradually is unable to follow written/spoken directions.
- Gradually is unable to care for self.
Those with Alzheimer's, especially in the early stages, and those without caregivers may become chronic callers. The elderly can become chronic callers, as many chronic callers are simply lonely individuals seeking attention. Still, always remember with each call, every time, there may be a legitimate emergency, so never discount a call just because it is from a chronic caller. Handle each call based on its own merit.
Suicidal callers can be intimidating for telecommunicators, especially when little or no training has been provided for these situations. Suicide-intervention training as a preventive measure can be as important as CPR training in our EMD programs.
An alarming statistic is the rate of suicide among the elderly. The National Strategy for Suicide Prevention reports an average of one suicide among the elderly every 90 minutes. White men above the age of 80 represent the greatest suicidal risk of all age, gender and racial groups. These are violent deaths usually involving firearms. Depression, bipolar disorder and severe pain are associated with the high risk of suicide in the elderly. The increasing numbers in this age group are important, because they come from the fastest-growing sub-segment of the elderly in the United States. These trends may continue to rise as the baby-boomers reach those age groups.
Some special issues may be involved in handling calls from our increasing and increasingly elderly population. Trends in population growth suggest telecommunicators should hone their calltaking skills when it comes to elderly callers. Consult your agency's policy and procedures for information on how your agency handles these types of calls.