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My elderly neighbor is a safety hazard

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Q.  Last night our elderly neighbor went out and left her dinner cooking on the stove, causing a panic when the hallway filled with smoke and bad smells and set off smoke alarms. 

Fortunately the super was around and let himself into her apartment to shut off the stove before things got worse.  But who knows whether we'll be so lucky next time.

What do people do about elderly neighbors' safety (and their own)?

A. This situation is unfortunately common. But it's possible to preserve dignity and safety at the same time.

As a first step, your managing agent and/or board members should meet with your neighbor to share their concerns and suggest some safety measures, says property manager Michael Wolfe. Some suggestions include stove timers and smoke alarms as well as automatic water valve shut-offs to prevent accidental floods.

It may also be time to reach out to your neighbor's family.

“Years ago in my own building we asked all the elderly residents for the names and phone numbers of someone to call if they became sick or injured,” says real estate lawyer Stuart Saft.

“On several occasions," he says, "we have been forced to contact relatives when we became concerned that our neighbors were no longer able to care for themselves, were wandering the street alone late night, seemed disoriented or became ill." 

Water overflows, multiple pets, and hoarded garbage can also prompt outreach to relatives, says Saft, though sometimes it’s necessary to threaten to terminate a resident’s proprietary lease to get relatives to pay attention.

In serious situations, property manager Thomas Usztoke and real estate lawyer Jeffrey Reich are among those who recommend asking the city’s Adult Protective Services division to consider appointing a guardian.

“They will come out to meet with and evaluate the resident, and they offer a number of services which may be helpful in ensuring safety of the resident and the neighbors,” says Reich.

Gordon Roberts, a real estate broker and longtime Upper East Side apartment owner, also underscores the importance of keeping a communal eye out.

"It can be simply neighborly to keep an eye out for the common good, and a senior neighbor might appreciate the kindness," he says.  

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