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Watch Your Back!

March 29, 2007 By:
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Shirley Lorenstein: Toughing it out
Walking from his car to a South Philadelphia senior center, David Welsh, then in his mid- 80s, felt someone grab him from behind. Before he knew it, he was thrown to the ground, and a man was ripping his pants pocket and then stealing his wallet.

"I couldn't do anything," said Welsh, now 88, recalling when he was attacked outside of the Stiffel Senior Center several years ago. Eventually, a staff member from the facility saw him outside and helped him to his feet. Fortunately, the senior citizen suffered no injuries.

His attacker made off with a credit card, which he used to purchase $60 worth of gas, yet he missed the $600 in cash in Welsh's front pocket -- to be used to buy gifts for a grandson.

Welsh may have been easy prey for the criminal. Although he remains active for his age -- he tap dances, and also plays saxophone in the house band, the "Stiffel Swingers" -- he's no physical match for a much younger man.

"I have a feeling that they sat around the senior centers and got the most vulnerable people," said Welsh, who lives in South Philly.

Many other seniors have been forced to accept the realities of their physical limitations and ability to defend themselves. In an episode in New York City earlier this month -- one that made national headlines and was repeatedly shown on television -- a mugger punched a walker-bound, 101-year-old woman repeatedly before grabbing her purse. He made off with all of $33.

'It Looks Like the Brinks Truck'
Last year in Philadelphia, according to police, nearly 800 violent crimes took place against citizens 65 and older, with aggravated assaults increasing 30 percent from 2005 to 2006.

Such incidents are especially dangerous in this case, as the aged tend to be weaker physically and have a slower recovery time, according to Dr. Todd Goldberg, a geriatrician at the Albert Einstein Medical Center and medical director of the Paul's Run Retirement Community in Northeast Philadelphia.

"They are often so frail and ill that they can be more prone to serious injuries," says Goldberg, 47. "If a little old lady with osteoporosis is mugged or beat up, she's likely to have much more serious injuries than a healthy young person."

He adds that the shock from being attacked could even lead to a heart attack or stroke, or a psychological fear of leaving home at all.

To help boost the know-how of its attendees, the Stiffel Center offers a seminar for public safety run by Charlie Sarkioglu, a community-relations police officer in South Philly. He says that to keep themselves safer while walking from place to place, seniors should be accompanied by another person, should never flash money, and they should be particularly careful going to and from the bank.

In fact, "we suggest direct deposit," he adds.

And though it may hinder fashion, Sarkioglu insists that it's best for older adult women not to carry a pocketbook at all; if they do, they should keep it tight to their bodies or under a coat, and not dangle it on or over their arm.

"There could be nothing in there," he says, "but it looks like the Brinks truck to these criminals."

He does not feel a senior needs to carry pepper spray or Mace, because fighting back could put such a person at risk for further injuries. If approached, give the criminal what he or she wants, and back off.

"It's best to cooperate," acknowledges Sarkioglu, who speaks about safety at senior centers about four times a year. "It's a bitter pill to swallow, but injuries or worse could happen when you resist."

He also warns seniors about home-contracting scams, as well as in-home threats -- someone posing as a neighbor or a delivery person, for example -- and suggests that they look out the window before opening the door.

"If you're not expecting anyone, use caution," says the officer.

Still, he assures that there has not been "a run on these types of crimes" in the area. Nevertheless, it's better to be safe than sorry.

Shirley Lorenstein, 72, who goes from her apartment in Northeast Philadelphia to events at the Stiffel Center, retells the story about being followed by a man during the night several years ago. She says that when she turned around to look at him, he walked in a different direction.

"I guess I didn't look scared enough" to be attacked, she says.

Still, these days, walking at night is not in her routine.

"I hear too many stories," laments Lorenstein, adding that she's definitely heard of "episodes where women got mugged."

Even after he was robbed and thrown to the ground several years ago, Welsh believes that an individual has to continue living without fear.

"Maybe I'm crazy, but I don't feel vulnerable," he declares. "It never frightened me to the point where I'm looking over my shoulder all the time." 

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