The author and husband Keith with dogs in May 2021 on the deck of their home, Vanaprastha, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.
Before “pandemic” became a household word, my husband Keith received an email from one of our neighbors. I’ve changed his name, but frankly, Jim could be any older person, living alone with children hours away.
Jim said he was afraid he’d die and no one would find him for days and asked if Keith would check in on him regularly with a call, email or text. Keith said, “Sure,” and wrote down his children’s contact information, just in case.
“Love our neighbor as ourselves” — that was our guideline. But as Jim declined mentally and physically, we began to ask ourselves how we could help without enabling him to stay in a dangerous living situation.
Keith and I had retired to this small rural neighborhood of 12 families. All of us chose the location for the mountains, forests, quiet, and privacy afforded by multi-acre lots. How-are-you waves when passing on the gravel road that connects our properties and the annual owners’ association meetings — that was about the extent of our interaction. But with the pandemic, we became more deliberate about checking on one another.
Even though we’d noticed deterioration of Jim’s exterior house maintenance during the pandemic, we weren’t overly concerned about him until he had a single-vehicle accident on the mountain road one evening. He was not injured, though his truck took a beating. More concerning was that he didn’t have a reasonable explanation for what had happened.
Keith contacted his children, and they arrived that weekend. We offered to meet with them at our house. Jim did not attend.
“The house was as we expected,” his son said, “piles of trash and pizza boxes.” We weren’t surprised either, having seen our parents let things go in their later years.
“This is new to you, common but not easy,” I said. “There are services you can put in place, as we did for our parents, and resources. In the meantime, how can we help?”
Jim’s son was already assisting with finances and legal matters; his daughter said she’d check on housekeeping, coordinate with doctors, and research elder-care services covered by his insurance. We agreed to visit Jim more often, to be their “eyes and ears on the scene.”
Jim admitted to having balance and memory problems. We noted other concerns along with his poor eating habits: lack of social interaction, misplacing personal items, and inability to properly care for his beloved dogs. Jim had built a fenced area when he got the two dogs eight years ago but had never walked them, and now he couldn’t. So, when I stopped to check on Jim during my mid-afternoon writing break, I walked his dogs. Minimal, not nearly enough, but we had our own dogs to walk too.
It was hard to see Jim’s decline. Should we have been doing more? Yes, but more could turn into a full-time job, infringe on his independence, and give him and his children a false sense of security.
In less than a year, Jim had two more unexplained one-vehicle accidents. By then, everyone in the neighborhood was worried about him. We encouraged his children to pursue a driving evaluation for their father and left it at that.
There are many federal and state government and organizational resources and articles about how to help older people. Regional agencies, such the Jefferson Area Board for Aging in our community and local social services, are good places to start as well as safety nets for low-income seniors, hardship cases, or those without family. Seniors need on-site teams for help and support: trusted friends, good neighbors, church members. Recommendations for “team” members include visiting often, offering meals and transportation, helping with home maintenance, listening, and watching for scams and pet neglect.
We now invite Jim for dinner every Tuesday — picking him up and driving him home— so he has a decent meal and social interaction once a week. Keith regularly emails Jim’s son, while Jim’s daughter and I text each other. She found a physical therapist to help her dad with balance exercises. The therapist also delivers groceries she orders online.
The gravel mountain road in the author's neighborhood in November 2021.
In a pinch during times when Jim’s truck is in the shop, I drive him where he needs to go and pick up milk, orange juice, and his prescriptions when I’m otherwise out and about. But we draw the line with house maintenance, personal care, and regular transportation, even though driving is our biggest concern: his safety and the safety of those he might encounter on the road.
Keith and I have re-missioned to second careers — we’re both writers — and have other commitments. Although it is an honor and a blessing to help our neighbor, we do not want to love grudgingly. Jim and his children often express gratitude, but ultimately, they must figure this out. He has options and is able to pay for services but is more afraid of losing his privacy or having to leave his home than he is of dying alone. And there’s the rub, as it is for many.
“Hey, Jim,” I yelled in his entry one afternoon. His two large dogs came barreling down the stairs — there are lots of stairs in Jim’s three-level house. The house felt uncharacteristically cold, and it was the middle of winter.
“Hey,” Jim said to me. He sat on the top step of the stairs. “When I got up this morning, it was 55 degrees in the house and the heat was off. Guess I ran out of propane.”
“Have you contacted the company?” I asked.
“Not yet. I have to find my phone. I started a fire in the basement stove.”
Until recently, he’d heated his house with firewood. Now I wondered if he remembered how to do so safely. Instead of asking and risk hurting his pride — and our relationship — I pulled out my cellphone. “While you find your phone and call the propane company, I’ll text your daughter so she can help you with this,” I told him. I leashed the dogs. “I’ll touch base with you again when we get back from our walk, OK?”
Things often disappear in Jim’s house, including his watch and phone. I’d get “I can’t reach Dad” text messages from his daughter and reply, “I’ll check on him when I’m down there.” Another line drawn, except when his cellphone went missing for two days. His daughter had installed a phone tracker, which he could ping from his computer. So, she coached him on my phone until I found his phone pinging under the sofa upstairs where he sleeps.
Jim’s dogs need grooming, and so does he — shave and haircut. But Tuesday dinners, dog walk check-ins, and occasional “in a pinch” helping are how things stand. We love our neighbor — within reason.
On Fridays, Keith and I review the week as we celebrate our happy hour together. We are blessed to have each other — and to hold each other accountable for personal and household care and social behavior. We’re baby boomers in our seventies. Our children also live hours away.
We pray not to burden anyone but know when our time comes we will, no matter how well we plan. There are no magic wands, and no one to make these issues go away. But after cleaning out decades of accumulation from our parents’ homes, we promised ourselves not to keep more than we need. And after watching Jim’s decline and experiencing our own, we have more patience and compassion for those who need help due to aging.
“I think we’re still hitting all points,” Keith said. “Physical, spiritual, intellectual, family, community. We’re attenuating gracefully, but conscious of our slipping.” I nodded.
“We will outlive our time here on the mountain,” I said, and he nodded. But for now, we are still in the third stage of life, our third season, autumn, the harvest. Time to reconnect and prepare for the winter we know is to come: the fourth and final stage.
There’s great strength in facing the realities of aging and death, in preparing for the inevitable rather than denying it. That’s how we love ourselves and others. Community. Not easy, never perfect, almost always messy, but a good goal all the same.
Carole Duff is a veteran teacher, flutist, naturalist, and writer of narrative nonfiction. She posts weekly to her long-standing blog Notes From Vanaprastha and has written for Brevity blog, Mockingbird, Streetlight Magazine,The Perennial Gen (now The Sage Forum), for which she is a regular contributor, and other publications. Her book “Wisdom Builds Her House” will be released in early 2024 through Brandylane Publications. Carole lives in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband, writer K.A. Kenny, and two large, overly friendly dogs.