Neighbors can fill the gap when it is too much for one person to juggle a full-time job, solid relationships with a spouse and children and the needs of aging and ill parents.
Living hundreds of miles away from her elderly parents, Rachel Meyers of New York has found that kind neighbors near her parents' Minnesota home can be there for her parents on a daily or weekly basis since she cannot be there herself. Ms. Meyers's father and mother still live together in their own home in Minnesota, and he worked full-time until his retirement at age 80. It took concerned neighbors to alert Ms. Meyers in Brooklyn to her mother's deteriorating health.
"They were noticing that she looked more frail, that she was losing weight and a big concern was that she was not getting dressed during the day," Ms. Meyers said. "When talking about a 55-year long marriage, a spouse is not always the person who can get things going."
Ms. Meyers is like many Americans who do not live near enough to their aging parents to observe the important changes they are going through or to help them on a daily or weekly basis. Often times neighbors bridge the gap between families and professional care, though there are no statistics to confirm the numbers of elderly being assisted by kind neighbors.
Homewatch CareGivers, an in-home caregiver agency with locations in 30 states, encourages family members and neighbors to open the communication lines and work together -- and to call for help when the burden becomes too much.
That was the case for the Meyers family when a young family in the neighborhood, as well as friends, stepped up to run to the store for milk or help with other small chores and check in on the elderly couple.
"We are definitely relying on a tribe of friends and neighbors that we've put together," Ms. Meyers said. "We call it 'Team Harriet.'" Ms. Meyers's parents are in their early 80s and want to continue living independently, and not in assisted care housing.
And it's important to coordinate the care with other friendly neighbors.
"When our neighborhood 'grandmother' was getting frail we -- family, friends, neighbors -- would all randomly show up on the same day with the best of intentions," said Karen Bantuveris, founder of www.volunteerspot.com. "So instead of getting three visits in a week, Peggy would get one big visit. Three would have been better, I think."
The Meyers family's small "tribe" seemed to know just what signs to look for -- including an unkempt home and memory problems -- and had the proper contact information to reach the couple's adult children. Homewatch Caregivers provides a list of signs to look for when determining if an elderly neighbor is in need of help, as well as tips for approaching that person and their family.
"One of the most daunting challenges for family members who are responsible for the care of an aging or ill loved one is coordinating care -- from health care planning and medication management to home safety upgrades, nutritional assistance and emotional support," says Nancy Ford, RN services supervisor at Homewatch CareGivers of Charlotte. "As your loved one continues to age, or his or her illness worsens, it's easy to be caught off-guard. Many will end up with a lack of proper care providers, a dangerous living situation, or worse: a medical emergency that could have been avoided."
While professional services will never replace the care and emotional support of loved ones (whether you're across the country or down the street), client care coordinators can complement daily in-home care practices and enhance the quality of life of the entire family.
Steve Gould, a health advocate with the non-profit organization Visiting Neighbors in New York City, said that it's important for neighbors to become friends first. "As well intentioned as a neighbor might be, it's not going to work unless you try to be a friend first and lay the groundwork," he said. "People should think of this person first as someone they want to talk to, not 'this is an old person and I better help.'"
Mr. Gould also cautioned that a loved one might avoid a neighbor if they find out that their family members have asked that person to keep an eye on them and report back. "Everybody needs a hand once in a while, but it has to be a gentle hand," he said.
Visiting Neighbors pairs volunteers with elderly people who they have something in common with -- a background in music or a shared second language -- and not just actual neighbors. These volunteers provide a connection to the community at large as well as social interaction for people who may be mostly homebound. Such companionship can become part of helping with errands or getting someone to their doctor appointment.
"It can be as simple as a steady arm to rest your hand on when crossing the street," Mr. Gould said. "Or having somebody who is taller to reach things off the higher shelf at the grocery store, or going to the beauty parlor to feel better."
Random stories of neighbors helping out their elderly friends can range from things as minor as shoveling snow off walkways in the winter to putting in eye drops or as significant as evolving from the helpful neighbor to someone's primary caregiver.
Often it is not until there is a crisis of some kind to get neighbors to communicate about the needs of their elderly friend, but experts recommend being prepared before that happens.
In what appears to be an effort to maintain her independence, Mike Crowley's 75-year-old mother of Spokane, Washington, recently asked a neighbor and friend to put in her eye drops every day rather than her son who lives less than five miles away.
"She had rotator cuff surgery and has terrible arthritis in one hand, so she didn't have one good hand to put her eye drops in," Mr. Crowley said. Once Mr. Crowley learned of his mother's dilemma -- and neighborly solution -- he spoke to the neighbor and they exchanged phone numbers for the first time.
"She is trying to be independent as long as possible," said Lydia Elsom, Jane Crowley's neighbor. "It's a way of saying, 'I can still take care of my affairs.'"
Yet this can be the beginning of creating a network of help.
"The first step actually was that I insisted my mother wear an emergency response button and in order to do that, you have to have first responders nearby," said Ms. Meyers. "I did solicit the neighbors I knew she liked and trusted to be the recipients of those calls."
With the foundation laid, the network of neighbors can create a safety net for their elderly friend.