Getting Help for Isolated Elderly Residents
Many elderly residents are capable of living independently and paying their rent on time. But sooner or later, you may have an elderly resident who has trouble coping with day-to-day concerns, such as managing money, paying rent on time, or keeping his unit tidy. An elderly resident who has trouble coping may neglect normal upkeep in his unit. He may eventually stop cleaning, let his bathtub overflow, or leave the gas range on—putting himself, other residents, and your site at risk.
Before an elderly resident's situation becomes serious, there are signs that should cause you or your staff to pay more attention to the resident. We'll give you seven signs or triggers, provided by Bob Stevens, director of training at New York City's Department for the Aging, that indicate that your elderly resident may need help and that an appropriate social service agency should be notified.
Seven Potential Warning Signals
If a mishap occurs that affects the safety of other residents or the condition of the building—such as an elderly resident's overflowing sink—you would probably talk to the resident and ask him to be more careful. But you can act promptly, before other residents are put at risk, if you are aware of the following signs or triggers:
Repeated questions. An elderly resident may ask a staff member several times a day whether the mail has come in yet. This may possibly be a sign of dementia, or it may just mean that the resident is lonely. If a resident asks repeated questions, monitor the situation for other signs or triggers.
Wandering. You may find a resident wandering around your building. It's common for a person with dementia to wander and become lost, and many do, repeatedly. In fact, over 60 percent of those with dementia will wander at some point.
Inappropriate dressing. This could be dressing in heavy gloves and an overcoat in 90 degree weather or going outside without shoes when it's snowing. Associated with this is any uncharacteristic action or deterioration of personal habits, such as infrequent bathing and shampooing.
Repeated service requests. An elderly resident may make repeated calls for things she no longer can do, such as opening jars. This is an indication of physical frailty or arthritis, and means that nobody else is around to help and additional assistance may be needed for the resident at home.
Substance abuse. A resident may ask a staff member to buy him alcohol, or may slur, which may indicate a substance abuse problem, or it may mean that he's overmedicated. Overdosing on medication may lead to confusion, forgetfulness, or a misunderstanding of a doctor's instructions.
Compulsive hoarding. Compulsive hoarding was once categorized as an obsessive-compulsive disorder. But recent studies are showing that it is a mental illness of its own. Owners and building staff usually become aware of hoarding behavior through maintenance visits or complaints from neighbors about smells or pests originating in the resident's unit. Hoarding can be dangerous for the resident if one of his collected items were to fall on him.
Frequent visits from strangers. Frequent unrelated visitors may indicate the possibility of exploitation. Elderly residents who are lonely or confused may start to bring unrelated individuals into their homes, and these people may exploit them financially. These strangers may start walking off with the elderly resident's personal property, such as paintings or other valuables.
How to Find Help
Fortunately, there are local and state agencies that assist elderly residents. These agencies provide services directly to residents to help them care for themselves. The agencies can provide access to home-delivered meals, home-care attendants, chore services, and other in-home supportive services for seniors who need help.
Programs are available, regardless of income, to those who are mentally or physically impaired and unable to carry out daily chores or protect themselves from neglect without assistance, and who have no one available to assist them responsibly.
Some agencies can also petition for guardians ad litem—that is, guardians who represent the interests of a person in a single action in a lawsuit—for people who need help in ensuring their own safety or the safety of their property. In some cases, the state agency or a family member or neighbor can seek to have a permanent guardian appointed if the senior is incapable of managing day-to-day concerns.
If the resident is better able to care for himself and his unit with the help of these agencies, your site will benefit, too. Your search for agencies can start with the Eldercare Locator, a public service of the U.S. Administration on Aging. It can be used to find resources for elderly residents in any community.
The Eldercare Locator can be reached by phone at 1-800-677-1116, and you can call anytime, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., Eastern Standard Time. You can also visit www.eldercare.gov for more information.
What to Say
Here are some tips on what to say when you call one of the agencies provided by the Eldercare Locator:
Describe danger to resident, not to your site. Social services are interested in the welfare of the elderly resident; they are not interested in your property. When you call an agency, describe the danger the resident poses to himself, not the danger he poses to your site. For example, a resident who leaves gas jets on may asphyxiate himself or die in a fire.
Let agency decide how to help. Don't try to diagnose the resident's problem or tell the agency what kind of help is needed. You may think he needs to be in a hospital, but you should stick with the facts—for example, the resident leaves faucets running and gas jets turned on. Let the agency decide what help is called for.
Bob Stevens: Director of Training, New York City Department for the Aging, 2 Lafayette St., New York, NY 10007; www.nyc.gov/html/dfta.