Q: My neighbor, Betty, who's nearly 80, lives near my wife and me. For weeks she's been complaining that someone in her backyard is setting...
Q: My neighbor, Betty, who’s nearly 80, lives near my wife and me. For weeks she’s been complaining that someone in her backyard is setting fires all day and night. None of the neighbors (including me) can find any evidence. She says he runs away when we come, and now she’s furious with a neighbor who she claims is hiding him. The cops have been out but can find nothing. Other than her house falling down around her, I see nothing out of the ordinary. Her son, who is at his wits’ end, says Betty calls him a dozen times a day.
We’ve only lived here a year, and I feel bad that I’m just now getting to know Betty. I don’t want to be in the middle of her crisis, yet I can’t ignore it. What’s my responsibility? Betty is diabetic, not eating or sleeping, and has piles of things up to the rafter throughout her house. I’m worried she’s going to burn it down trying to prove there’s someone out there. However, I’ll feel bad if I get her moved out of her home of 50 years, which she loves. She won’t accept help, even her son’s.
What should I do to help — if I have a responsibility — and how long do I wait for the son to act before I become concerned enough to take action?
A: So many good questions, a few good answers. Let’s start with the basics.
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First, you have no legal responsibility to intervene on your neighbor’s behalf. The fact that you have — and feel compelled to do more despite not wanting to — speaks volumes about the nice job your parents did raising you. Should they or you get into similar trouble some day (and any of us could), I hope a neighbor will rise to the occasion as you have.
Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to help older people to thrive. This is why: Your neighbor’s brain is misfiring and causing her great harm. There are many possible causes, such as malnutrition, diabetes, mental illness or a dementing illness, like strokes or Alzheimer’s.
At this point, the cause is immaterial. What’s important is that she’s lost the good judgment that would otherwise allow her to understand there’s no one in her backyard setting fires. She’s seeing things that aren’t there and believes them. Nothing anybody says can make her understand she’s wrong, so you shouldn’t try.
She’s also lost the ability to take care of herself, and now her anxieties are escalating. She’s in constant turmoil, neither sleeping nor eating (nor probably taking her medications). This can be disastrous, especially for a diabetic. My guess is that Betty’s problems started long ago. If she were out in the ocean, hanging on to a life raft, you’d try to save her. This is how you and your neighbors need to think of her: She’s hanging on for dear life, but I’m not sure she even has a life raft. She needs help.
The first step is to find out why Betty is behaving this way. The son must try getting her to a doctor. Hopefully he’s named as the mother’s substitute decision-maker in her durable power of attorney, but even without this, he should try.
But let’s say there is no son, or he can’t get her to see a doctor — what then? Two alternatives.
• Adult Protective Services (APS) is charged with protecting vulnerable adults over 60 and younger disabled persons from harm: physical, verbal, financial or neglect from anybody, including themselves. Anyone can call APS — the son, you, a friend or anybody else who’s concerned. Frankly, the police should have done this when they visited. In King County, the phone number for APS is 206-341-7660 or toll free at 866-221-4909. To find an APS office elsewhere in the state, call toll free 866-363-4276.
• Senior Information & Assistance is another good resource. Anyone can call this free service for help to problem-solve situations involving older people, but especially if they’re in crisis and appear to need mental-health services and won’t see a doctor. In King County, the phone number is 888-435-3377. You can find these offices throughout the nation by contacting Eldercare Locator at 800-677-1116 or www.seniorservices.org/ina/i&a.htm or www.eldercare.gov.
Second, no neighbor or family member is responsible for what happens to Betty. Remember, she’s drowning in a sea of mental anguish, hanging on for dear life and isn’t in a position to evaluate or understand what’s best. This is why an accurate diagnosis is important — so her doctor and others can get her the services she needs.
Liz Taylor’s column runs Mondays in the Northwest Life section. A specialist on aging and long-term care, she consults with individuals and teaches workshops on how to plan for one’s aging and aging parents. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org or write to P.O. Box 11601, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110. You can see all of her columns at www.seattletimes.com/growingolder/.