By Marianne Delorey
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.
Meet Jane and Ellen. Jane has gotten pretty forgetful, so Ellen helps her open her mail and prioritize what she has to do that day. Ellen has bad knees, so she relies on Jane to go to the grocery store for the both of them. Their mutual support has worked well for years until Jane took a spill. Now, she looks to Ellen more and more for help. Ellen’s own difficulty walking is making it hard to do everything that Jane needs. Frustrated, Ellen approached building management to do something. “You need to send her to assisted living, she is too sick to be here anymore! Where is her family? I can’t be doing everything!”
Not surprisingly, in housing we cannot just “send” someone to assisted living. As much as we might like to think otherwise, we are just landlords and have limited power to compel people to move. And even when we can compel them, it is very hard to convince them they are failing if they are being propped up by their neighbors. Of course, the enabling behavior of the neighbors 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. Although we all hope that the consequences are minor, it sometimes takes a major event to wake people up. Someone who has been refusing help in the shower and finally takes a fall is more likely to accept help than someone who may not be great with their money and misses a payment or two.
It is heart-wrenching, 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 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. 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.
In the case of Jane and Ellen, a heart-to-heart between Ellen’s daughter and Jane’s nephew helped clarify not only how much extra help was needed but also some gentle reminders that all elders are better served when family, professional supports, and informal supports work together.