It was definitely a sound of distress, a high-pitched noise coming through the air vents in our condominium. I thought to myself, “Is that a mechanical noise or a bird of some kind?” I repeated my question aloud to my husband, who by then, had heard it, too. This wailing carried on all night and through the morning. I called the gate house and reported it. And just to make sure I wasn’t imagining it, when a repairman came to my home that morning, I asked him to listen for a moment to see if he could hear it. And yes, he could.
I later found out that the noise I’d heard came from the tiny dog of an elderly man who has been keeping the pet for his son-a serviceman stationed in Alaska. The elderly man and his little companion often greeted me on the elevator or in the driveway leading to our building’s rear door. The tiny pooch-a miniature Schnauzer, I think-would always look up at me with those big wide eyes. He had a perpetual look of fear on his face while I harbored an inner wariness that our encounters would trigger my allergies. Nonetheless, his loyalty to the elderly gentlemen was admirable –as was the man’s complete devotion to his four-legged sidekick. They were like peas and carrots. The man’s son may never know how important the bond between his father and that dog turned out to be.
The noise I’d heard from overnight and most of the morning had come from that tiny dog-distressed because the elderly man had died sometime in those hours. The close proximity between his condominium and mine was the reason I could hear the noise so distinctly. Others must have heard it, too, because the dog kept his distress signals up to a volume that forced somebody to check in on the elderly gentleman. That’s how his passing was discovered. Since the man lived alone, the dog was the sole witness to this transition.
While this is not an unusual scenario-seniors living alone with a pet as their only companion-the story is poignant enough to remind us all to check in on the seniors we both know and love. It may be the winter months -when snow, ice and brutal winds make it next to impossible for seniors to get out on their own-that they are the most vulnerable. With roughly half of the country buried in the throes of winter for the next few days, we all get a taste of what it’s like to feel somewhat trapped in our homes. Think for a moment what it would be like to be trapped all of the time. And when the thought really sinks in, do something about it. Check in on that elderly loved one or that neighbor–even if it’s just a routine but regular telephone call. You never know how much a simple gesture can mean to someone whose interactions with others have been mitigated by life circumstances. It could turn out to be a literal matter of life and death.
Senior clubs that exchange volunteer efforts to render services to their senior members-such as rides to the doctor, repairs around the house and other services–are beginning to evolve for seniors who still live in their homes. Local Meals on Wheels1, public and private transportation, Area Agencies on Aging as well as other senior services are feeling the brunt of increased need. According to the Centers for Disease Control 2, our U.S. population is growing older and at an unprecedented pace. According to the CDC, longer life spans and aging baby boomers will combine to double the population of Americans aged 65 or older during the next 25 years to about 72 million. Older adults will account for about 20% of the U.S. population by the year 2030.
When those senior services reach their capacities, a number of elderly find themselves forced into unwanted and oftentimes dangerous isolation. Health experts warn us all that it is neither good for the body nor the soul to feel–and be–alone. For seniors, the negative impact is only exacerbated. Statistics from the CDC bear out the ramifications of such an existence. Depression and other mental illnesses are among the risk factors for seniors living alone. And let’s not forget the accidents that can occur with a senior living unassisted in their home.
There are innumerable seniors who have to rely on someone to come through when they need it most. Think about being that guardian angel for someone who may need one. In addition to the CDC, The National Council on Aging3 is a good informational resource to help you get started. And while you make that first contact, think about that miniature Schnauzer.