This post originally ran on 10/20/2015, and was updated 11/20/2015.
As part of Neighbors Week on Brick, we've covered everything from the most common neighbor-related complaints to the importance of good neighbors, both for kids and for adults. But we don't want to forget about the elderly either, who may be in more need of help from neighbors than anyone.
A few weeks ago, The New York Times ran a stunning portrait of George Bell—a Jackson Heights man forgotten late in life but remembered in death. It's a must-read for anyone living in New York, and not just because it pokes at the one fear many of us share of dying alone in a city teeming with people. It also serves as a reminder for us to watch over our elderly neighbors.
On July 12, 2014, the police found his corpse in his apartment, six days since he was last seen. His car hadn't been moved for street cleaning; a neighbor reported a "fetid smell." For the better part of 2014, experts tried to track his next of kin and piece together his life, a story stitched from photos and letters and purchases he'd hoarded in his overstuffed apartment, later amended by the few who really knew him.
City authorities took on the lion's share of the narrative-chasing. While it's not clear how many New Yorkers die alone each year, according to the Times, in Queens county alone, the public administrator had to manage a caseload of about 1,500 estates a year that didn't have a will nor a known relative who could take over.
So what can a New Yorker do to make sure their neighbor doesn't suffer a similar fate? Though we certainly understand the need to respect someone's privacy, if you're truly worried about the safety and well-being of a neighbor and have already reached out (to no avail), you might want to try the city's Department for the Aging, which is reachable by dialing 311 (as long as it's not an emergency). Or you can reach out to them directly at 212-602-4000 or via their website for guidance.
There are also senior centers in every neighborhood in the city, says Donna Corrado, department's commissioner; there are 260 in total across the boroughs. You can always visit or call them for guidance and they can likely have someone go in and check on the individual.
Another resource: the New York Foundation for Senior Citizens, through which you may also be able to speak with a case manager and go over options. "We will send a case worker to the apartment or make sure that the person has the appropriate resource," says the Foundation's president, Linda Hoffman. "We don't let anything fall through the cracks. If we know about it, we will do something to help," she says.
If you're concerned specifically that your neighbor may not have enough food to eat or the ability to go out and get food, you may want to reach out to Citymeals-on-Wheels (the city's Department of Aging can connect you to them, too). You can sign your neighbor up through one of their 30 meal centers across the city.
The staff is also trained to recognize signs of elder abuse or dementia, says Beth Shapiro, the group's executive director. That means an extra set of eyes that's checking in on the elderly and homebound New Yorker. "If George Bell had been visited every day, things might have turned out differently," she says.
"It's important to raise consciousness about people checking in on each other," says Corrado."It's about being more aware. We all have to take care of each other. If there's bad weather, check in on a neighbor and see if they need you to buy something from the store. We need to show compassion."
Corrado says that if you've noticed some disturbing signs—like mail or newspapers piling up, or in the case of Bell, a car that hadn't been moved for a while—and are concerned that the worst has happened and a neighbor may have passed away in their apartment, call 911 immediately. "Call 911 for an emergency, and 311 for information," she says.