Aging Officers: A Dilemma Worth Considering

Imagine that you have come home to discover a burglar in your home. Quickly leaving your residence, you call the police with your cell phone. Several minutes later an elderly police officer arrives, gets out of his car and slowly approaches you using a cane to help him walk. As he gets closer you notice he is wearing hearing aids. Not exactly a confidence-builder, CPI instructor certification
but this aging officer asks you if anyone else is in the house or if there are any weapons in the house and where they are located. These questions seem reasonable.

A few moments later, two younger officers arrive and charge towards the house with their guns drawn. The elder officer stops them and tells them to go to the rear entrance of the house. As other officers arrive, the elder officer assigns them to take up positions around the house and near windows. He then gets on his bullhorn and advises the burglar the house is surrounded by police and if the burglar comes out with no weapons and hands in the air, he will not get hurt. The burglar complies. No one is injured and no property is stolen.

When the burglar is taken into custody, a sawed-off shotgun is found inside the house. It belongs to the burglar. Now, this aging officer looks brilliant.

The Problem with Aging

Gross motor skills peak at age 30. It’s all downhill after that; or at least that is what we have been led to believe.

The 5 senses do decline with age. These changes can have a great impact not only on job performance but on satisfaction in the quality of life. Our senses tell us a lot about the world. They pick up information that is changed into nerve signals and carried to the brain where that information becomes a message we can understand. The starting point for the senses is stimulation, and the older a person gets, the more stimulation required for a clear message.

*Hearing and balance begin to decrease as parts of the ear lose functionality. Because the ear also affects balance, as we age balance and hearing become more difficult. High-pitched sounds are usually the first to deteriorate. Generally, this begins around age 50.

*Vision is affected by age. Essentially, it gets harder to respond to changes between light and darkness. The eye lens, which helps focus images, becomes less flexible; often requiring reading glasses. The eye muscle also loses tone, making it a bit harder to see details.

*Taste and Smell are intricately linked. Some smells actually have a certain degree of taste. Proper taste and smell are also safety valves – informing us about the presence of dangerous gas, smoke or even spoiled food. Although there are no definitive studies which suggest these 2 senses deteriorate with age, there is evidence that the number of active taste buds decrease with age.

*Touch includes the ability to feel vibration, pressure, temperature, and pain. These abilities decrease with age.

Clearly, the senses are important to all people but they play a critical skills role with soldiers, law enforcement officers and fire-fighters – for obvious reasons. As these critical skills diminish, the effectiveness in the field would diminish as well, at least for tasks which require these skills.

Is there a way for your agency to detect the decline of these critical skills in aging officers?

The Retirement & Health Care Factor

About 77 million baby boomers begin to enter retirement age in 2011. Baby boomers were born between 1946 and 1964. For the next 19 years, 10,000 will reach age 65 each day. One big problem with this is there are not sufficient funds for them to retire on.

Traditionally, police and fire personnel have had generously defined pension plans that, for the most part, allow them to retire earlier than people in other occupations, with a healthy percentage of their salary. Many retire by age 56. This trend developed based on the belief that people in these professions lived shorter lives due to the danger and stress involved in these occupations, along with a greater risk of injury. Turns out NOT to be the case. There are other professions that are a lot more dangerous.

The average life expectancy for all workers is about 78 years old. Pension studies consistently indicate the longer a worker works, the shorter their expected life span. Social Security has begun to pay out more than it is taking in.

Two additional factors are the dramatic rise in the cost of health care and the global financial meltdown, which wiped out a large percentage of accumulated wealth that was invested in various funds dedicated to retirement. Cities and counties are more susceptible to bankruptcy than they have been. Many current civil servant pension plans are now grossly underfunded. Eventually, these pension plans will have to change because they are not sustainable. Boomers are also more likely to work longer, out of necessity. In one survey, 40% said they will work “until they drop”.

The combination of these influences will create an environment where officers may be forced to work past the current traditional retirement age because they cannot afford not to. The generous pension plans of yesterday will be a thing of the past. At the same time their critical motor skills and senses will be declining. Given these demographics, it would be prudent for law enforcement agencies to begin to prepare for an aging officer workforce.

New Research

Current research suggests that fine motor skills acquired over a lifetime involve many structures in the brain, and after time those structures become “highways”. With an amateur these structures are very active. But as the amateur becomes an expert, less brain activity is required to carry out the process. In other words, although the aging expert experiences the same deterioration in motor skills that the aging non-expert experiences in unrelated tasks; the aging expert retains the skills learned over a lifetime through decades of practice.

This supports the primary principles that Marcus Buckingham & Curt Coffman put forth in their great book – First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently.

Among other things, they assert:

*Talents are not the same as skill or knowledge. Talent is an altogether different phenomenon.

*Every person has a “filter”; a characteristic way of responding to the world around him. We all do. Your filter tells you which stimuli to notice and which to ignore; which to love and which to hate. Everyone’s filter is unique. Your filter is always working. Of all the possibilities of things you could do or feel or think, your filter is constantly telling you the few things you must do, or feel, or think. Your filter, more than your race, sex, age or nationality, IS you. A person’s mental filter is as enduring and unique as their fingerprint.

*Neuroscience research tells us that beyond our mid-teens there is a limit to how much character we can re-carve. This means in terms of mental pathways, no amount of training, coaching or encouragement will enable someone to turn the barren wastelands in their brain into frictionless 4-lane highways. Beyond our mid-teens, we either have it or we don’t; whatever that may be.

*Neuroscience research confirms the filter, and that the recurring patterns of behavior the filter creates are enduring. This filtering process is what creates specific talents. You cannot teach talent. It is already there.

Additionally, new research suggests that aging adults who stay socially active and engaged not only keep their intellectual skills sharp, but their motor skills as well. This has serious implications for aging officers, who possess wisdom and skill sets that younger officers have not yet acquired.

This information leads me to suggest that the aging officer, who possesses all of this talent that has been soaked for several decades in experience – should not be encouraged to retire, be stuck into a community service position or relegated to desk duty. The aging officer’s skill sets and talent should be matched with a real need within their agency or department – where their primary talents and “highways” can be utilized effectively.

The Problem with Qualifications

Theoretically, the decline in an officer’s skills would first be noticed during department or agency annual qualifications. The problem is that most agencies do not require qualifications that would accurately assess these skills. Most agencies do require annual shooting qualifications, but it is highly unlikely the decline in cognitive function, the senses and overall mental health will be discovered during a shooting qualification.

As a Use of Force, firearms, self defense and martial arts instructor I have noticed that as I age my physical abilities are declining. I am not as fast as I used to be and I have lost muscle mass. It takes longer to recover from routine injuries associated with what I do. I have had to adjust my workout routines to accommodate what is happening with my body. For the most part, this means a greater emphasis on stretching and cardiovascular training, and less emphasis on strength training. Conversely, I have also noticed that I am much wiser than I was at a younger age. I do not have to think much about solutions to problems that are presented within my area of expertise. If I do have to engage in a violent encounter my assessment of behavior and choice of action is quicker and surer than it was many years ago. I am also more accurate at assessing and predicting human behavior. There is evidence of the decline in motor skills and the “highways” that are within me.

For over two decades my primary clients were criminal justice professionals. When dealing with these various agencies I always recommended US Supreme Court guidelines in the application of Use of Force. That is, to provide initial comprehensive training followed by 2-year refreshers. As some of the agencies I had initially trained asked me to come back and conduct refresher training I began to notice that during refresher training, some aging officers were struggling and it was clear that their motor skills were deteriorating. I also noticed some of them showing the younger guys how to do the techniques. Herein lays another example of deteriorating motor skills but enduring “highways” of knowledge and experience in aging officers.

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