The Humanist Dilemma: How Far Do You Intervene When an Elderly Neighbor Is Being Neglected?

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What to Do about Failing Neighbor:  A lovely elderly neighbor in my apartment building is developing Alzheimer’s. Her cleaning lady has been appearing more frequently of late, so I think she’s coming to give the woman a hand beyond the weekly cleaning. My neighbor’s only surviving child resides in another country, but her son-in-law (widower from a daughter who passed away and father of her grandchildren) lives nearby.

Recently there’s been a horrible stench coming from her apartment that’s persisted for days. I spoke with the building staff, and they cleaned the halls (including the walls) with bleach, but the odor didn’t subside. They wouldn’t give me any contact information, but I tracked down the son-in-law’s work phone and told him about the problem—and that I was not only concerned because of the smell, but also because of what it indicates about how his mother-in-law must be suffering alone in her apartment. He told me the cleaning lady comes three days a week. I told him that clearly wasn’t sufficient, and he promised he would call the daughter who lives abroad. When I reported this to the building staff, they laughed and said that daughter won’t do anything to help her mom. I was also informed that aside from the weekly cleaning, the cleaning lady just goes in and out but spends no time. The building superintendent feels this is a “sensitive” matter and doesn’t want to offend anyone, so he’s reluctant to do anything.

Meanwhile, I learned from another neighbor that when he was investigating the smell, he found the woman’s door ajar and the woman lying on the floor. He could barely lift her. He also mentioned he’s embarrassed to have visitors because the halls smell so bad. Another neighbor, who wasn’t aware of the Alzheimer’s, said she and the woman had made lunch plans and agreed to meet in the lobby, where she waited and waited. When she called, the woman said, “We should have lunch some time,” as though they’d never made plans. We are all concerned that the woman can’t be alone and a brief check-in several times a week isn’t enough.

I told my spouse if this happens two more times and nothing is done to get her more care, I’ll call the authorities. He says that would be mean. He also says the problem won’t persist very long, because the woman is deteriorating so rapidly. I think what’s mean is that this poor woman needs help and isn’t getting it. Even waiting for two more episodes may be too mean.

What’s the right course of action?



Dear Worried,

I’m inclined to agree with you, not only about calling in the authorities if the family doesn’t take action, but also about not waiting for two more rounds. But first, try exhausting all efforts to get the family to rise to the occasion. Maybe they don’t recognize how bad things are. Call the son-in-law again and beg him to come over and see (and smell) for himself. Tell him two of the thrice-weekly visits may be very brief—perhaps he has the impression they are longer and more extensive (and maybe someone is paying for more service than is being delivered). Also make a stink, so to speak, with the building management. Yes, it’s sensitive, but it’s also life-and-death.

If still no one is inclined to take action, proceed to call your local authorities. This woman is being neglected and is on track to be found dead on the floor if no one intervenes to provide her with more attention. Adult protective services may be able to provide visiting nurses or assisted living, as well as spur the son-in-law and daughter to become more involved. Put yourself in the woman’s place: Would you want to be marooned in your apartment, living in your own stench and inflicting it upon your neighbors, sprawled on the floor hoping someone eventually pokes in and picks you up? Or would you want to get more care, even if it means aides in your home or a home that provides aid? If she’s still lucid enough—and particularly if she’s not—I think the answer is clear.