What Can You Do When You See an Elderly Person Who Looks Alone and Confused?

Over the weekend, I witnessed quite a few examples of community.

There was a kite show near our lakefront; people were gathered just outside their local church to chat and catch up after the service. Since it was a sunny and warm day, people were out walking their dogs, running, doing yardwork, and paused to give passersby a quick “hello” and a wave.  

By those accounts, it would seem that I live in a very inclusive community.  

And then I saw him: an elderly gentleman, standing at the edge of the sidewalk.  

Nobody acknowledged him. He was looking around, a quizzical expression on his face. He may have been standing at the edge of his own sidewalk; he may have been at the edge of someone else’s sidewalk.

His image stayed with me as I continued my drive home.

What should we do if we see someone who looks confused? On one hand, within our sensitive, politically-correct culture, I certainly don’t want to make an assumption about another person’s cognitive abilities or diagnosis. On the other hand, someone who has dementia may have an impaired sense of judgment and could get seriously hurt. Or, as is so often featured on the news in the winter months, someone with dementia may wander off, get lost, and freeze to death.  

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 5 million Americans are currently living with Alzheimer’s disease. This number is expected to nearly triple by 2050. Which means that there will be more members of our communities who live with some form of dementia.  

So what can community members do to ensure that our elders remain a part of a safe community that looks out for them?  

If my local grocery store has any say in the matter, they might offer that we be more patient.

My local supermarket has what they refer to as “leisure lanes”—checkout lanes for people who need a bit more time.

I like this idea for two reasons: First, they’re looking out for their customers and trying to provide good customer service. The second reason I like the idea of leisure lanes is less obvious: It’s a subtle way of educating the general public that we share our community with people who may need a little more time… so be patient, please.

So, that’s one thing we can do. But what else?  

I called my local police department to ask how they might respond if a citizen called and asked for them to check on someone. The officer I spoke with said that they receive about four to five calls per week to do a welfare check on someone who may have dementia.  

Because of this, they’ve trained several of their officers in responding to people who have dementia—and they try to ensure that at least one of those officers is working every shift.  
Remember: We share our community with people who may need a little more time. Be patient.

The officer also said that they enjoy these calls because it affords them an opportunity to interact with the community in a positive way. He added that with all of the silver alerts these days, they are more than happy to check on someone. I could tell that this officer had had some training, because he mentioned that establishing rapport with the person is critical.  

Finally, there are communities out there that are very serious about caring for all of their community members. Kansas City, for example, has a whole booklet on the subject! It talks about strategies such as a reverse 9-1-1 phone system so they can notify people of emergencies and encourage people to check on their neighbors. (The booklet is a bit lengthy, but worth the read!) And here in Wisconsin, there’s a grassroots movement to make Watertown a dementia-aware, dementia-friendly community.

The best part about all of this: Random community members have opportunities to get educated. Not through having to take a class or anything formal, but just by paying attention. If our businesses and police departments can lead by example and look out for our elders, then perhaps the rest of us will follow suit.  

We should, because we are all a part of the same community.  

What do you think? Let me know in the comments!

a:  joint ownership or participation <community of goods>
b:  common character: likeness <community of interests>
c:  social activity: fellowship
d: a social state or condition.

Definitions from Merriam-Webster

You might also be interested in