There are a lot of older people in my neighborhood -- including me. It's a concerned community, and I always thought that it was a good thing that if I didn't emerge from my house for a few days or my neighbors noticed that I was wandering the streets in my nightie that they would knock on my door to make sure I was all right or call my kids and tell them that their mother needs to be watched.
But apparently, interventions like that may be illegal and certainly can get a concerned citizen sued. To avoid this kind of liability, neighborhoods with lots of older residents need to do some retirement planning.
Megan McDonald Scanlon, who's an attorney for national law firm LeClairRyan, specializes in law as it pertains to neighborhood associations and private communities. She says many associations and their boards of directors are not aware (or do not appreciate) health care privacy laws and other laws and policies at play when dealing with older residents. Under these measures, intervening -- even to make sure someone hasn't hurt themselves -- could certainly create liability if the person resents the intervention and sues.
Scanlon urges anyone who is concerned about someone else to call the police or some other authority and ask them to investigate. And never enter a property uninvited, she warns -- even if you have a key or know that the homeowner keeps a spare under the mat.
Ironically, ignoring potentially dangerous situations or people in harm's way also could result in liability, especially for neighborhood associations, Scanlon says. If someone is harmed and people knew about the risk but didn't do anything, the association could be sued. "Ultimately, it might not be the association's legal responsibility to make sure people are competent to drive or that they will not wander into the road," Scanlon says. "Nonetheless, the association could still incur significant legal expense to defend itself."
Scanlon urges neighborhood associations and people who live in neighborhoods where there are increasing numbers of people living in retirement to recognize that aging brings with it some troubling issues. Putting a plan in place to deal with potential problems before they occur is wise.
Scanlon recommends that part of the defacto retirement planning communities should consider the following ideas.
- Establishing a weekly shuttle to the grocery store, which could improve transportation safety for individual residents and the community as a whole.
- Offering voluntary wellness or telephone checks, or promoting socialization through lunches and other events.
- Collecting residents' emergency contact information before a crisis happens and maintaining an up-to-date list of people with special needs.
- Forging relationships with local nonprofit organizations and social services agencies, starting the likes of "Friends Helping Friends" clubs and bringing in experts who can keep older residents apprised of technologies and services that promise to make their lives easier. "Examples include the GPS bracelets that some municipalities now use to help families keep track of elderly people who are at risk," Scanlon says.
- Setting clear architectural guidelines for accessibility ramps and other structural modifications that maximize property values even as they protect residents.
- Considering setting standards for MedCottages or so-called "granny pods" -- miniature mobile home-like structures custom-designed for the elderly and intended to be parked in the back yard of a relative's home -- which are becoming increasingly popular in many areas.
"The overall point is to take a positive, engaged, service-oriented approach," Scanlon says.