When A Senior Neighbor Needs Your Help

Q. My neighbor, Sam, has lived alone in his home ever since his wife died three years ago. He used to come outside and greet us and attend neighborhood events. Now, he goes days on end without speaking to anyone. His son, who lives an hour away, used to stop by twice a week to help with household chores and bring groceries. As his work responsibilities have increased, however, he has not been visiting.

It seems to me that Sam lacks regular and positive social interactions with anyone. He keeps his shades pulled tightly, and his yard is unkempt, and if I didn’t see him scurry to the end of the driveway to get his morning paper, I would wonder if he even still resided there. We tried to ring the doorbell to say hello, but he pretends like no one is home and doesn’t answer. We are concerned. How can we check on him without seeming intrusive, and if he needs help, what can we do to help him, without overstepping our boundaries as neighbors?

A. As we age, and as our families spread out, we all need to show concern for each other and lend a helping hand when needed. Thank you for being a concerned citizen and neighbor.

Problems can certainly arise when seniors have no one to check in on them and no family to step in and help out. Seniors who live alone, similar to your neighbor, can suffer from social isolation and health problems, and without any support, can exhibit poor self-care, a neglected home, and problems running errands and caring for pets.

Signs That Your Older Neighbor May Need Help

Below are some signs that your neighbor may need assistance. Sometimes, these changes can be an indication of loneliness, depression, poor mobility or cognitive, financial, or social decline:

  • A decline in home or lawn maintenance: Less mobility and/or a lack of desire to leave the home means your neighbor may be unable to maintain his property.
  • Doors, windows, and curtains remain closed: If you neighbor is having trouble with chores, he may be hiding the condition of his living space. On the other hand, if you neighbor is experiencing social isolation, he may be disengaging by shielding his safe zone.
  • Vehicle rarely moves, very few visitors: Declined mobility or social isolation (as well as a lack of financial resources) may influence how often your neighbor ventures away from home, or how often he or welcomes people inside his home. If your neighbor isn’t leaving home (or routinely visited) for long periods of time, chances are he is not interacting in social spaces with friends, family, church members, etc.
  • Change in physical appearance: Although illness is a major culprit in altered physical and mental conditions, self-esteem and mental wellbeing can also contribute to changes in physical appearance. Talk to your neighbor (if you can) or solicit the assistance of an outside party.
  • Leaves mail unattended: If your neighbor is not stepping outside of his home to collect mail for long periods of time, this is a strong indication of social isolation or possible cognitive decline.

How to Step In

When we become aware that a friend, family member, or neighbor needs some extra assistance, we are sometimes hesitant to step in. Your neighbor may not want anyone to get involved, or may not want his privacy intruded upon. Here is a good place to start, when you truly want to help:

  1. Approach the subject gently, conveying your concern. Talk to your neighbor first, in a tactful way. Try knocking on the door once again, or approaching him while he is getting his paper. You might start by asking how he’s doing and then mention something you’ve noticed, such as an unmowed lawn or mail spilling out of the box. Offer to help, if you’re willing and able to do so. Some people will gladly accept; others may not.

Your neighbor may open up to share his situation from his perspective. He might have solutions, but no way to carry them out. He may want someone specific to be called in to help, but he may not know how to start the conversation to ask for help. Whatever the situation, some attention needs to be brought to the forefront.

  1. Once you have investigated the problem, follow your neighbor’s suggestions and his lead, and help him to help himself. Always try to preserve independence and dignity, as much as you can.
  2. Contact one of his family members. Many times, families are simply unaware that their loved one is having these issues. By communicating with his children or siblings, you can ensure that they are mindful of the issues and can respond accordingly.
  3. If you can’t get in touch with family and your neighbor is truly isolated, or if he needs more services than neighbors can provide, get in touch with your local Area Agency on Aging and describe the situation to them. These agencies are the experts on what’s available in terms of assistance programs to help seniors live safely at home, such as: health and wellness programs; in-home care coordination; adult day care; senior housing options; transportation; and more. In addition, if your neighbor belongs to a religious congregation, ask the head of the congregation if they have resources to help their senior members at home.
  4. Involve the police, if necessary: Remember that if you’re ever worried about a friend, neighbor, or loved one’s immediate safety, you can request a wellbeing check from your local police department or sheriff’s office. If you believe that your neighbor is in a life-threatening situation, contact 911

Identifying and Combatting Elder Abuse

This week, we observe World Elder Abuse Day. Elder abuse can be in the form of neglect, financial exploitation, emotional abuse, or physical abuse. Read more about elder abuse here, and be sure to educate yourself on the issue. If you suspect your neighbor is being abused or neglected, report suspected mistreatment to your local adult protective services agency or law enforcement.

Visit Your Father this Father’s Day, if he is still with us (or your neighbor or other senior loved ones)

Father’s Day is on Sunday, and it’s a great day to spend time with those you care about, so visit your father if he is still around, your neighbor, or a senior loved one. When you visit someone who doesn’t get regular visitors (even when he or she has Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia) you may have impacted that person in a major way, especially if he or she is lonely and/or feeling isolated or depressed. The feelings you create by showing you care can change how he or she interacts with others and improve his or her mood. Remember, the benefit of your visit (or a call, if you cannot visit) will likely last, so call and visit senior loved ones whenever you can.

For your neighbor (suggest to him or his family) or if you have a senior loved one, or even for yourself, it is always prudent to plan ahead in the event that assisted living or nursing home care is needed in the future. Life Care Planning and Medicaid Asset Protection is the process of protecting your assets from having to be spent down in connection with entry into a nursing home, while also helping ensure that you or your loved one get the best possible care and maintain the highest possible quality of life, whether at home, in an assisted living facility, or in a nursing home. As always, please contact us when you’re ready to make an appointment for a no-cost introductory consultation:

Fairfax Elder Law: 703-691-1888

Fredericksburg Elder Law: 540-479-1435

Rockville Elder Law: 301-519-8041

DC Elder Law: 202-587-2797

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.