“It was hard to see Jim’s decline. Should we have been doing more? Yes, but more could turn into a full-time job.”
Before “pandemic” became a household word, my husband Keith received an email from one of our neighbors. I’ve changed his name, but frankly, Jim could be any older person, living alone with children hours away.
Jim said he was afraid he’d die and no one would find him for days and asked if Keith would check in on him regularly with a call, email or text. Keith said, “Sure,” and wrote down his children’s contact information, just in case.
“Love our neighbor as ourselves” — that was our guideline. But as Jim declined mentally and physically, we began to ask ourselves how we could help without enabling him to stay in a dangerous living situation.
Keith and I had retired to this small rural neighborhood of 12 families. All of us chose the location for the mountains, forests, quiet, and privacy afforded by multi-acre lots. How-are-you waves when passing on the gravel road that connects our properties and the annual owners’ association meetings — that was about the extent of our interaction. But with the pandemic, we became more deliberate about checking on one another.
Even though we’d noticed deterioration of Jim’s exterior house maintenance during the pandemic, we weren’t overly concerned about him until he had a single-vehicle accident on the mountain road one evening. He was not injured, though his truck took a beating. More concerning was that he didn’t have a reasonable explanation for what had happened.
Keith contacted his children, and they arrived that weekend. We offered to meet with them at our house. Jim did not attend.
“The house was as we expected,” his son said, “piles of trash and pizza boxes.” We weren’t surprised either, having seen our parents let things go in their later years.
“This is new to you, common but not easy,” I said. “There are services you can put in place, as we did for our parents, and resources. In the meantime, how can we help?”
Jim’s son was already assisting with finances and legal matters; his daughter said she’d check on housekeeping, coordinate with doctors, and research elder-care services covered by his insurance. We agreed to visit Jim more often, to be their “eyes and ears on the scene.”
Jim admitted to having balance and memory problems. We noted other concerns along with his poor eating habits: lack of social interaction, misplacing personal items, and inability to properly care for his beloved dogs. Jim had built a fenced area when he got the two dogs eight years ago but had never walked them, and now he couldn’t. So, when I stopped to check on Jim during my mid-afternoon writing break, I walked his dogs. Minimal, not nearly enough, but we had our own dogs to walk too.
It was hard to see Jim’s decline. Should we have been doing more? Yes, but more could turn into a full-time job, infringe on his independence, and give him and his children a false sense of security.
In less than a year, Jim had two more unexplained one-vehicle accidents. By then, everyone in the neighborhood was worried about him. We encouraged his children to pursue a driving evaluation for their father and left it at that.
There are many federal and state government and organizational resources and articles about how to help older people. Regional agencies, such the Jefferson Area Board for Aging in our community and local social services, are good places to start as well as safety nets for low-income seniors, hardship cases, or those without family. Seniors need on-site teams for help and support: trusted friends, good neighbors, church members. Recommendations for “team” members include visiting often, offering meals and transportation, helping with home maintenance, listening, and watching for scams and pet neglect.
We now invite Jim for dinner every Tuesday — picking him up and driving him home— so he has a decent meal and social interaction once a week. Keith regularly emails Jim’s son, while Jim’s daughter and I text each other. She found a physical therapist to help her dad with balance exercises. The therapist also delivers groceries she orders online.