Elderly living in fear

Gardaí are weeks away from approving measures to combat rural crime despite growing fears over a renewed spate of attacks on elderly people.

In the latest incident, a woman in her 80s and her deaf husband were assaulted and robbed at knife-point by a gang who broke into their home in Churchtown, Co Westmeath.

It was the third violent attack in recent days, following on the murder of the Blaine brothers, Tom, 76, and 69-year-old Jack, at their home in Castlebar, Co Mayo, and the vicious assault on the Arnold sisters, Isa, 91, and Suzy, 89, at their Raphoe, Co Donegal, home.

The attacks have raised anxiety across rural Ireland to the level felt last winter when gangs of thugs terrorised elderly people in isolated areas in a series of brutal robberies, and crime figures showing burglaries on the rise has further fuelled fears.

Third Age head of communications Anne Dempsey said such attacks were usually associated with the long, dark winter evenings but she warned summer presented its own problems.

“Older people can actually be more isolated in summer because the usual services they avail of may be on holidays and family may be away,” she said.

However, she said, the national voluntary organisation’s Senior Helpline dealt with crime concerns year-round. “There is a general rise in fear when there is a violent incident like this. Calls spike irrespective of where it is. But that fear is always there.”

Eamon Timmins, head of advocacy at Age Action, said crime and security was among the top three issues aired on that organisation’s information line, regardless of whether it was in the news, and he urged communities to become more proactive in tackling it.

“We need communities to pull tight on this,” said Mr Timmins. “The loss of Garda stations and community gardaí has not helped with people’s sense of security but we need people to set up Community Alert and Neighbourhood Watch, to look out for their neighbours, to identify suspicious activity, to create a sense of solidarity that might deter criminals.”

The Community Alert scheme is about to undergo a major overhaul after an 18-month pilot programme in 40 selected areas where householders signed up to a text messaging service, enabling them feed details of suspicious activity directly to their nearest 24-hour garda station.

The station then issues warnings and requests for further details to all registered members, allowing officers and residents on the ground exchange crucial real-time information that can foil criminals before they attack.

Garda management are to sign protocols on database management, insurance cover, and liaison procedures within the next month and Muintir na Tíre, which co-ordinates the scheme at local level, says it will then roll it out nationally.

“The results so far have been very positive,” said James O’Neill, acting national director of services with Muintir. “People are being empowered to respond to crime and the fear of crime without putting themselves in danger.

“It’s reigniting neighbourliness. There is a new energy and a new partnership with the gardaí which is crucial. All rural people want is to have a living countryside and it’s very difficult to do that if you are paralysed by a fear of crime.”

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