Sage: Neighbor is becoming demanding: How to handle her?

Dear Sage:


We have an 86-year-old neighbor, a widow who’s usually kept to herself aside from an occasional wave, smile and basic hello. A month ago, she called me up and started to make demands. “I’m getting on,” she said the first time. “You need to take the trash out every Tuesday night and bring the barrel back in.” Which I did, figuring that a physical disability had taken its toll. Then she started telling me to get the mail, bring it into her house, go through it with her, and write out checks for bills that had just arrived. Now her tone of voice is ever more strident, and she is ordering me around in other ways – “Get over here and clean the toilets!” she shouted this morning. And go to the grocery store, get some chicken and cook it for me.” I’m retired and certainly wouldn’t mind helping her – after all, she’s been decent over the years. But she’s becoming pretty demanding, and I hope she doesn’t turn into Cruella de Vil. What can I do to help her – and me?


  • Wit’s End in Walla Walla, Washington


   Dear Wit: The Sage has heard countless stories about rotten neighbors. So far, it sounds as if yours has not been a beastly busybody who hates you and who is fond of leaving an open package of soft putrid limburger cheese in your brand-new car, correct? She has not dumped a month’s worth of trash in your living room, either, right? Has she set up massive speakers in the backyard blaring the theme song to Green Acres nonstop and left for the weekend? Thrown raw meat into your yard to attract coyotes, buffalos, black bears and other wild animals? Such acts – while not unheard of – nevertheless can provide perspective about degrees of reprehensible behaviors, and this woman’s place on that scale might not be at the farthest end of despicable.

    In all likelihood, she needs more than a little understanding and sympathy. It is possible that she is suffering from some kind of disorder – emotional, physical, or possibly both – that may require medical attention and a host of other types of care.

   Perhaps the behavior is related to something simple – a medication change, physical pain, or even a urinary tract infection, which can cause irritability and confusion. Or it can be more complex, such as depression or the onset of dementia or a variety of other serious conditions.

   The first question is whether she is safe or at risk in any way. Is she physically weak and unsteady (chances are she’s not a prime candidate for the Olympic balanced-beam competition). If she falls, she could break a hip or fracture other bones and possibly become permanently bedridden and disabled.

    Has she lost her driving skills (we’re talking normal street driving, not the Daytona 500).  Does she remember her medications and take them on schedule?    

   And as for what are known as Activities of Daily Living: Can she bathe and clothe herself? Cook? Use the bathroom? Move around alone? And is she continent?

    Now comes a key question, and this has to do with your views of how far one should go in helping a neighbor, particularly one who may be frail and who lives alone: Odds are, if you have any kind of a conscience and basic generosity of spirit, the last thing you want to do is ignore her if she is relying on you – fairly or unfairly (please note here that the Sage is not above using guilt as a motivator, because as a parent he has seen guilt used effectively – by other parents, of course!).

   Obviously, you will need to set boundaries, as you are not responsible for her health and wellbeing, but your observations about her circumstances and behavior can be valuable to any expert who visits to examine her and begin whatever level of care may be deemed necessary.

   The Sage would suggest, first, that you talk to her and ask her diplomatically if she’s doing all right – perhaps tell her that you’ve noticed a lot of mail and quite a few newspapers in her yard (hopefully not going back to the Eisenhower administration). Ask her if she would provide you with the names and phone numbers of her children, other family member or her closest friend in case she needs help. Tell her you think you should call one of them to stay in touch.

   If she has no other family or close friends, tell her you think you need to contact an expert in senior care – perhaps start with her doctor, who may be able to diagnose the problem right away if it’s a medical condition alone. Otherwise try your local or state agency on aging for hotlines and referrals to community resources. Or go on the Internet to – the U.S. Administration on Aging – which has an online service locator by state. You can also find listings of agencies from the National Care Planning Council (

    Elder care is complex and can take many forms – which is why your neighbor needs someone with the skills and experience to determine what she needs, such as an assessment from the Visiting Nurse Association of America (; volunteers to deliver meals or groceries; drop-in wellness care; psychological counseling; medical care; round-the-clock in-home assistance from aides; placement in an adult day care program; or full custodial care, such as a move to a nursing home or hospice. In the latter two situations, it will likely be essential that she also hire a good elder-care attorney to help navigate financial and legal complexities and obligations.

   These days 13 or 14 million seniors live alone, and your neighbor’s predicament is common. What is not always common is a caring, empathic, assertive neighbor who will take the initiative to help someone find services that will keep her safe and protected and provide her with the best, most appropriate care possible. That, it seems, would be you, would it not?

   I applaud you for your concern. Perhaps you will just need to take the first step or two to help her, and you will get a lot of fulfillment out of doing that.

   Please go over there soon. Oh, and please forget the limburger-cheese-in-a-new-car shenanigan. No matter how rotten any neighbor is, it would a shame to waste a good piece of cheese!


   Humbly Yours,

   The Sage