Good fences make good neighbors


M.Delorey_headshotBy Marianne Delorey, Ph.D.

Robert Frost once wrote a poem called “Mending Wall” in which the property line between neighbors brings them together and yet keeps them apart. This seeming contradiction is seen every day in elder housing. The best neighbors come together in times of need, but are aware of their own limits, or boundaries in the relationship.

Elders build friendships with neighbors and they form groups among themselves. In these groups, people bring forward whatever gifts they have. It might be a car or sometimes it is the physical ability to do certain tasks. With all the contributions from each member, the group as a whole operates much like a traditional neighborhood. This informal network often fills the gaps in the available professional services.

These neighborhoods can create problems, too. The most interesting one I see is when the neighbors, they themselves elderly, are doing so much for their neighbors that they end up burning out. They then get frustrated with their neighbor, who they have enabled, the families, for not doing more, and with elder care professionals, for allowing some people to stay in an independent setting longer than they should.

Of course, this enabling is not a new phenomenon. It is, however, a reminder to elders and elder care professionals alike that allowing failure is sometimes necessary.

As uncomfortable as it may be, neighbors will need to step back if they have taken on too much responsibility. Those elders who are being served must be allowed to do for themselves or find the appropriate services for themselves. If they refuse to recognize their own limitations they must be allowed to face the repercussions of their decisions.  For instance, someone who refuses to accept help in the shower may have to fall in order to see the need.

This consequence, unfortunately, can be severe. However, until an elder is deemed incompetent, according to the laws of the land, they are free to choose to refuse help.

It is hard, however, to be the person who refuses to help. Most often, it is in their nature to be helpful and it is hard to stop doing what comes naturally. Moreover, very often the neighbor falls into this role gradually until they are in over their heads. Drawing the line is hard to imagine if you’ve been a primary support for so long. It is also hard to explain to the elder and/or their family why it has gotten to be too much. So many may see it as a personal insult. Finally, these caregivers often don’t have good relationships with the elder’s family, and so can’t reach out to them to let them know when the frailer elder needs more.

In these situations, it is sometimes best to know your own limitations. Perhaps your weekly lunch date with your cousin is the one thing you won’t sacrifice. Perhaps you can’t help with anything that bothers your knees. Maybe you have to say no to helping someone with money in order to keep yourself sane or preserve your own financial future.  Whatever it is, each neighbor is going to need to know where they draw the line so that they are aware when too much is being asked of them. This “fence” between your neighbor’s needs and your ability to help is vital and will make being a good neighbor even better.

Marianne Delorey, Ph.D. is the executive director of Colony Retirement Homes.  She can be reached at 508-755-0444 or and  Archives of articles from previous issues can be read at