ROCKPORT — On Roger Lesch’s first day of retirement, he showed up for work in the same place, taking on the same responsibilities he had had for years.
As the town-appointed special officer for elder affairs, Lesch has been making a lot of the same phone calls, wellness checks, and decisions he has made for the last two decades of his full-time police career, representing an important segment of the town’s citizenry.
“For me, it’s nice to be able to stay on,” said Lesch, sitting at a desk at the Rockport Police Station. “I’ve always said I could spend five days a week” on elder issues.
While still a regular member of the force, Lesch often stopped in on seniors during his drive home from work, called them during his off hours, and took emergency calls on his cellphone. He has counseled seniors and their families on the decision to stop driving, saved them from scam artists, pushed them to take care of themselves, and reminded them to check on their neighbors.
“This is the thing about a small town,” he said. “Everybody watches out for each other.”
With his mandatory age-65 retirement going into effect on Oct. 1, the idea of keeping Lesch on the force to handle senior issues was brought to the Board of Selectmen by Chief John “Tom” McCarthy, and gained emphatic support. Details of his compensation and hours are still being worked out.
“There was not one question,” said Linda Sanders, town administrator. “They jumped at the chance to keep him involved in any way. Roger has done so much for the town for so many years, and is so committed to the elderly, we thought this was a really good way to keep him on.”
Sanders estimated that 20 percent of Rockport’s population is over age 65.
“Seniors are younger now, but with so many of them in town, we need someone to look out for them.”
Police Lieutenant Mark Schmink, a colleague and longtime friend, noted that Lesch has received numerous awards and citations, and helped to develop several tools that the department uses, including the File of Life (emergency information kept at individuals’ homes) and the Alzheimer’s booklet, wanderers’ list, and senior watch, all of which are used by the department to identify seniors who may require assistance.
“His work with elders in the high-profile area of scams, which plague our elderly community, is exemplary,” said Schmink, who said that Lesch’s expertise has kept the entire department informed.
Lesch’s initial interest traces back to the early 1990s, and three particular instances.
The first was a report from a family of a 65-year-old man with Alzheimer’s disease, which was not as well known 20 years ago. Lesch had the family help him create a folder with information about the resident, which led to the senior watch program. The Alzheimer’s booklet grew out of that, and there are now folders with photos of about 30 Alzheimer’s patients living in Rockport.
Lesch also attended a seminar held by John Sofis Scheft, a lawyer and former director of the Elderly Protection Project under Attorney General M. Scott Harshbarger, and was intrigued by the issues.
“He was the one who really inspired me,” Lesch said. “We always tried to help seniors, but we never homed in on it.”
That was in 1993, the year Lesch suffered multiple leg fractures after slipping during an ambulance call, and spent nearly a year rehabilitating. Also during that period, one of his elderly neighbors told him about a person who had been defrauded by a scam artist claiming to have found radon in her basement.
Lesch investigated, and with the help of Rockport National Bank (which had a photo from when the check was cashed) and Medford police (who responded to a bulletin), foiled the scam and made an arrest.
“There have been quite a few people in town who have been scammed or financially abused by friends or neighbors,” said the Council on Aging’s director, Diane Bertolino. “Roger has played a big role to help prevent that, to prosecute, or to prevent it from happening again.”
Scams are an issue requiring particular vigilance, Lesch said.
“We just had one recently where a couple, somebody called and said, ‘You won all this money — just like Publisher’s Clearing House — and all you’ve got to do is send so much money in advance to Western Union, and we’ll get the process going, and eventually are going to show up with a limousine and the flowers and the whole thing,” Lesch explained. “Of course, nobody shows up, but in this case the couple kept sending the money through Western Union. We finally found out — the Rockport National Bank was a big help to us on that one — and I literally went to the Western Union [in Gloucester] one day because I found out that this guy was going over and sending $2,500 to what turned out to be Nigeria or whatever, and talked him into giving it back to me.”
Shortly thereafter, he received another call because the same victim was being victimized by a similar scam.
“The scammers will keep calling,” he said. “They’ll start out being very friendly, but when the money’s not coming they’ll start to get agitated, and scare the seniors into sending the money.”
In addition to law enforcement and safety issues, Lesch has been an advocate for seniors as a 12-year chairman of the Council on Aging, where he is still a member.
“He’s very important to all of us in town here,” said Denis Golden, 69, enjoying lunch of the senior center. “He’s got fine character and helps us all out, makes sure all of us are safe.”
McCarthy, the Rockport chief, recalled that a few years ago Lesch passed the sergeant’s exam but turned down a promotion because it would have meant giving up his responsibilities to the town’s senior population. “I was amazed that he turned it down — shocked — but that’s Roger,” he said.
“When people realized Roger was going to retire, I got phone calls from Senior Care and other agencies asking who was going to replace him,” the chief recalled. “I said, to be honest, ‘I don’t have any idea about who could even come close to doing what he does.’ ”