Dear PoP – How to Deal with an Elderly Neighbor?

Photo by PoPville flickr user Mr. T in DC

“Dear PoP,

My partner and I rent an apartment (it’s technically a condo, and we rent from an individual owner) in a 101-year-old building in Mt. Pleasant. Aside from wishing it were bigger for the same price (we can all dream, no?), we had very few problems with the unit until yesterday when we found out that we had cockroaches. We are, as you can imagine, thoroughly disgusted. We’ve been going through the whole boric acid routine all evening, and we’re pissed that these little suckers seem to have so much power over us. I mean, if they can survive the nuclear holocaust, how can we expect them to eradicate them from our tiny dwelling?

Anyway, this all leads back to how we believe we contracted the cockroaches: a frail neighbor who lives across the hall. The trash rooms/chutes in our building have been closed since 2007, due to what we understand to be a horrific pest problem. The chutes have remained closed since, but somehow our frail neighbor has gotten a key to the room, and continues to place her refuse down the chute, or alternatively, will leave it in the hallway. This has led to a significant pest problem for her closest neighbor, but until now, we have remained untouched by her inability to properly dispose of of her trash.

We have considered taking out her trash for her, but we think that is just the tip of the iceberg. From what we understand, her unit is hopelessly infested with all manner of vermin and insects. We know that we can’t control what she does in her own apartment, but when it comes to the health and sanity of others in the building, is there anything that can be done? We would like to help, but we’ve seen her many times both in and outside of our building and she doesn’t even acknowledge us, even though she lives across the hall and we know that she knows us. Is it acceptable to go over and tell her that we’ll take her trash out? How can we deal with this situation in a delicate manner?”

I know this is many people’s nightmare. I think cockroaches and pests in general are not confined to one apartment though. Of course one’s cleanliness or lack thereof can contribute to the problem. But I think you probably need to speak with the building management or condo board to schedule a regular exterminator appointment. What do you guys think?

Regarding the elderly neighbor, I think it is very kind of you to offer to take out their trash. I wonder if it would be possible to strike a friendship first and then you could offer to take out the trash (and perhaps carry heavy groceries)? I had an elderly neighbor who I helped carry heavy groceries and it developed into a genuine friendship.

47 Comment

  • Hi, we own a condo in the building that you speak of (all the details match up to our building anyway), and they have a very active condo board who would want to know about the pest problem and the possible unauthorized chute key. The management company can arrange for an exterminator for free. The neighbor may be resistant to having people come in to her place but it sounds like she is living in unhealthy conditions and creating the same for her neighbors. So please contact your landlord and/or the condo board, and best of luck in resolving.

    • The free exterminator did come on Saturday, but from what I understand cockroaches tend to come back no matter what you do. I was away all weekend, but the boyfriend was here to let him in, and from what he was saying, it sounds like this will be an ongoing issue.

      I did call the management company to check exactly when the pest control company was coming, since they put the wrong date on the sign-up sheet. When I mentioned this particular unit owner the woman groaned and said that they’d had many conversations with her about this before.

      I really love this building, but I can’t deal with this. We don’t even have the option of moving now because my boyfriend just graduated from his MA program and has yet to find a paid full-time job, so there’s no way we can get a new lease on just my salary.

      • I know it’s not what you want to hear, but tough it out. In NY, even nice buildings have cockroaches, so you kind of put up with it there. In the meantime, check for water leaks, or sweating pipes that can attract them to your apt. Also, a friend who was an exterminator recommended “chinese chalk” which is a kind of boric acid in a chalk stick, I guess.

        As for the neighbor, you might want to call Emmaus Services for the Elderly on 9th Street, or EOFULA on Columbia Road. They’re good at helping seniors in these circumstances.

  • and if you want things cleaned up but don’t want her fined/kicked out, you might want to encourage her to contact Legal Counsel for the Elderly. They have volunteers who help clean hoarders’ apartments. I don’t know if they’ll deal with someone who owns their own unit (it seems mostly focused on tenants facing eviction) but I imagine they might have some advice.

  • 1. Write up this same story and send it to Jim Graham. He will grease the wheels for whatever program is available.
    2. Carry down her trash every time, you will feel proud that you are doing a good deed even though it sucks. Never leave the trash up there.

    My elderly neighbor had rats.

  • I agree with PoP–it is impossible to KNOW that the neighbor is the sole source of the problem, or that getting her help with the trash is going to solve it.

    Changing the locks on the chute and contacting social services would be a first start, but I bet the building will need to implement an aggressive and permanent extermination plan for the whole building and common area cleaning strategy to eradicate the roaches and keep them gone.

  • I love how people who don’t know this woman, just make up “facts”. How do you know that “her unit is hopelessly infested with all manner of vermin and insects” ??? Just take out the trash, if it bothers you, you really don’t need to run and tell mommy and daddy.

    • Original poster here:

      I am well acquainted with her next door neighbor who has been suffering from her trash problem for years. The main problem is that she is unable to take care of herself and her apartment. Trust me, she can’t even hold up her head without a neck brace.

      If the trash is in the hallway from now on I’m taking it out, but if she uses the trash room there’s no way I can get to it because it’s locked and I don’t have a key. This is a safety and health issue and I’m not comfortable with cockroaches crawling on my counters.

      • Keep your head up R, and don’t mind the negative commentators who don’t appear to have anything helpful to contribute. I think you’re going about this in a good way.

  • Seems like you should probably move out of the building and move into a hermetically sealed egg somewhere.

  • We had a similar problem. After having several conversations with my neighbor it was clear that she had severe dementia and I contacted DC Office on Aging to see if they could help her. They sent a social worker out to do an assessment, but the social worker determined she was “fine”. Fast forward a few months later — the neighbor accidentally turned on her oven which was full of old pots and pans and other stuff and nearly set her house on fire (which was also packed full of stuff) as she sat at the kitchen table watching TV. Thankfully she had a functioning smoke alarm (which she didn’t hear), we were home to hear it, and the fire department responded quickly. She is now safe in a nursing home being treated for advanced alzeihmers. So much for that assessment by the OFfice on Aging.

  • Call the health department.

  • I would recommend making a report to APS (Adult Protective Services) if she is living in an unsafe condition then a social worker should take care of that or connect the neighbor with services.

    capcha: government carnic (seems appropo)

  • This is a tough situation. I had a similar problem years ago with an elderly couple who lived in the apartment below mine in a Boston triple-decker. They were doing okay until the wife’s legs were amputated due to diabetes and the state of their apartment quickly fell from manageable to reprehensible. It’s a very sticky situation because obviously you feel compassion for these folks, but want to take a heavier hand in getting them help than they are likely to want for themselves. At any rate, good luck!

  • As a former resident of a building that was infested with roaches, I can empathize. They’re truly awful to live with.

    I second the suggestion of adult protective services. At the least, they can come out and assess her living situation and hopefully link her with organizations that can provide appropriate assistance.

    And stay on your building management about regular exterminations and cleanings. Good luck!

  • As a former resident of a building that was infested with roaches, I can empathize. They’re truly awful to live with.

    I second the suggestion of adult protective services. At the least, they can come out and assess her living situation and hopefully link her with organizations that can provide appropriate assistance.

    And stay on your building management about regular exterminations and cleanings. Good luck!

    (apologies if this appears twice)

  • I think I am going to have to stop reading Dear PoP posts.

    You have a landlord. The building has a condo board. How is it that two adults mature enough to live on their own – one of whom is apparently intelligent enough to get an MA – cannot figure out how to contact these people to bring up this issue? Why isn’t your first step to call the landlord instead of writing an email to a neighborhood blog? Why not first contact someone who might actually be able to do something? Is this level of common sense really so lacking? Based on the recent Dear PoP posts, I think it must be.

    I’m sure I’m going to get flamed for posting a “really helpful comment.” But honestly, figuring out what to do in this situation really isn’t that complicated.

    • Prince Of Petworth

      The reason is that this is a delicate situation. If it is very obvious to you then good for you. But for others who haven’t been in a similar situation it is helpful to get advice from others who have.

      Honestly, a person reaching out to do the right thing should be commended. Your lack of understanding for this situation is perplexing to say the least.

      • See, I don’t read this as “our elderly neighbor may have some mental health issues and we want to help.” Especially after reading the comments from the email-writer above. What I read is “we have roaches in our rental and it’s gross and we don’t have the faintest clue as to how to get the problem fixed.” That’s why I’m bemoaning the lack of common sense.

        If they really wanted to help the neighbor, why focus on the roaches and call it a health and safety issue? If they really were concerned about the neighbor, and had asked for ideas about services to help someone who might be unwell, I might have more sympathy. But that’s not the impression given by the email and the comments. She sounds like she wants the cockroaches off her counter, not assistance for the neighbor.

        • Prince Of Petworth

          When someone seeks advice you can give them the benefit of the doubt or be condescending. By saying they have an MA and should figure it out is condescending. Whether it is asking about how to deal with an elderly neighbor or roaches or both you don’t have to be rude to the questioner.

          It’s wonderful that you know how to deal with the situation perhaps you can simply just give advice or skip this post or this web site completely as you know it is a community based blog and all questions are welcomed.

          • PoP, are you just having a slow day? Or is there a backstory here that we’re not getting? Because I have seen far more inflammatory and condescending comments than mine without you singling out the commenter. Any post you make on crime, dogs, or kids in bars turns far more nasty and condescending.

            I’m not saying you’re picking on me; I couldn’t care less and can take the public shaming you’re trying to dish out. I simply do not understand why you’re taking a stand on this. I’ve not made particularly rude comments before – I don’t comment all that often – so I doubt it’s based on any negative history.

            Regarding your point that it’s a community blog and all questions are welcome, sure it is. Isn’t the flip side of that that when you email a community blog, you’re going to get all types of replies? If someone’s skin is too thin for that, perhaps they should reconsider asking anonymous questions on the internet.

            My email’s there if you want to use it.

        • OP here:

          Who says I don’t want to fix both problems at the same time? Do the two problems have to be mutually exclusive? It /is/ a safety and health issue for me and my boyfriend, but it’s also a safety and health issue for other people in the building, including the elderly resident herself. Cockroaches carry diseases. I’m not sure why this is so offensive to you.

          The main reason I emailed is because I wanted a small-government solution to this problem by hopefully being able to fix it myself instead of running to the Health Department or some other DC government social service agency. My main concern was how to delicately broach the situation with the woman so that we can start taking out her trash, we can try to get rid of our cockroaches, and she isn’t living in filth. I wanted to make this a win-win situation.

          The other reason I emailed was that I was hoping to get a lead on some non-governmental institutions who assist the elderly in case I can’t work anything out with her. So thank you to all who gave me those names, I really appreciate it.

          Unfortunately, after talking to her next door neighbor about the best way to broach the subject, I have realized that it is more than I bargained for. The neighbor pinpointed the exact source of the cockroaches: a plant that her cat likes to eat. She has known that the plant is a breeding ground for cockroaches for well over a year now, but refuses to get rid of it. While we were talking to the neighbor, we could hear her arguing with her cat, so now we know for sure she has some mental health issues. We were that we shouldn’t even broach the subject of the garbage with the woman, so we’re kind of left with few options to take on ourselves.

          Her next door neighbor has a heavy infestation problem (as in roaches crawling around during the day, even on her), and I think that if we don’t get out of here soon, the same will happen to us. The roaches have already migrated to the apartment next door to us, and lord knows who else. Anyway, thank you to most of you for your suggestions on agencies and organizations that might be able to help us, thanks to others for their roach bait suggestions, and to the negative commenters, I hope you find something that makes you happy.

    • Anyone can get an MA.

  • It’s sad that so many in the US don’t care for their families, friends and neighbors.

    It’s sad that rather than going over with a couple bottles and introducing yourself, and getting to know your neighbor and asking if there’s anything you could do for them given that they don’t have too many callers, and then when they refuse coming over regularly and chatting and doing things anyway…

    …that you’re dcescribing a search for an impersonal, cold, hands off solution.

    At best, these protective services agencies will do just that. Only they don’t live next door and see what needs to be done.

    Instead, show love.

    It takes a village to be a village.

    • I think the poster’s concern is whether it would be insulting to the neighbor to offer to take out the garbage. The poster seems to WANT to do the neighborly thing. I don’t think it’s fair to lash out at the poster for not jumping in heroically to be the neighbor’s new best friend. Not everyone wants to be a social animal or live in a “village”…

      That said, I think step one, poster, would be to introduce yourself and ask if you can help with the garbage. Tell her that you noticed she has some trouble getting it down stairs and you’d be more than happy to help. You don’t even need to mention the vermin.

      Perhaps neighbor is resistant to help, or uncomfortable with “strangers”, even if they live next door. Then you may want to contact the department of aging. The building manager is not likely going to do anything to help the situation with the elderly woman, though they may change the lock on the chute and schedule extermination services.

      But I think the real heart of this is how to deal with a potentially incapacitated neighbor. She may not have Alzheimer’s or dementia, but it may be a huge physical strain to maintain her property. In which case she may just need more assistance from a family member, a friendly neighbor or a social worker.

      The comments in these threads are often so negative. I wrote in once with a question and got blasted on all ends, most comments were assumptive and flat out off base. I would really like to see more constructive comments and less hazing.

  • Yes, every thread must contain some variation of “tough it out – you live in a city”

    • sorry – this should have been in reply to one of the earlier posts re: living in a hermetically sealed egg

  • don’t worry, this will soon be fixed by death panels 😉

  • First off, Maggie is smoking hot. There’s my early rave for the day.

    I don’t know how to take care of this elderly woman, but I can’t help but feel that the Lawrence Welk show should be involved somehow.

    Have you seen Duplex (Ben Stiller, Drew Barrymore)?

  • I live in the Woodner and its filthy and dripping with Roaches and vermin. Try using combat roach bait. They do work. If not. Threaten violence against the neighbor.

  • Despite routine exterminating, condo board help etc. it may, sorry, come down to “toughing it out.” A bag of garbage sitting around is only a tiny part of the problem. Stacks of papers, boxes, warped baseboards, cracks in cabinets or bifold doors, TV cables all provide ideal habitat for roaches – dark moist cracks – and are common in older buildings with elderly residents. She doesn’t even have to be a “hoarder.” Especially if she fries food often – the grease in the air coats the cracks – boosting roach habitat from Motel 6 to the Hilton.

    I have a similar situation – an elderly neighbor in the condo next door to a unit I rent out. I have been friendly with and helpful to him for 25 years, he willingly accepts exterminator treatments. He is not filthy, but there is just 30 years of unscrubbed corners and piled up stuff generating 90% of the roach problem for the rest of the building.

    I regularly treat my unit, but you will still find a couple of roaches now and then. I deal with it by fully disclosing the problem to the tenant and making the rent appropriate.

  • I second the recommendations of talking to the landlord, DC Office of Aging, Adult Protective Services. But, I would also talk to the neighbor as well. Does she have family in the area, how does she feel about her current living situation etc. You don’t want to shock her with visits from APS, and talking to her will give you a better idea about her total situation and mental status.
    Also start documenting what’s going on with the building, and in your dealings with neighbor. If they are going to be able to talk any action the landlord and social services will need detailed documentation.

  • If the elderly neighbor can’t hold her head up, how can she get her trash to the trash chute, even?

    I would go over there, introduce myself, and offer to help her prior to speculating that her apartment is clearly disgusting and full of vermin. If you get over there and see that that IS in fact the case, yes, I would speak to the condo board first and adult protective services second.

    However, this is NOT unusual. Bugs are gross, but they’re not going to kill you. This is a city, after all.

  • Also – remember that a condo board doesn’t really have a whole lot of power to do something if she owns the unit. They can pass regulations and maybe fine her, maybe call in a fire or health inspector, maybe even have contact numbers for her relatives. But serving on a condo board is already a thankless task and most condo boards are already overburdened with duties.

  • On the flip side, I bought a house from a couple disgusting hoarders and cleaned it right the hell out. I share a wall with another house, and boy did they love me!

    With that said, without cleaning out the source apartment you can’t really do much. Hundreds of thousands of bugs will use that apartment as the source from which to expand, constantly sending out colonies no matter their fate. Since your BF is unemployed, he needs to become the local city administrator and find out resources from the councilmembers office, local and at large, and then ride herd on the relevant offices. Be the friendly face the neighbor has to deal with, take down her garbage, etc. If its unresolvable you obviously need to move unless you want to wait for her demise (sorry that’s cold I know).

  • Emmaleigh504

    I would introduce myself to the neighbor and mention I’ve noticed issues with pests (not related to her) and that I would hate for her to have the same issues and offer to help.

    Offer to help her in any way and don’t cast blame.

    Maybe she needs help tidying up, but is too embarrassed to ask for help or doesn’t want to be a burden. Maybe she doesn’t know about the bug problem because her eyes are bad. Maybe she doesn’t acknowledge you because she doesn’t recognize you. Of course, maybe she doesn’t give a rats ass, but kindness towards her can’t hurt.

    That being said, bug are a nightmare. Make sure your unit gets sprayed on a regular basis. Don’t let up at all.

    Good luck.

  • I used to live in a building with a lot of elderly residents, and cockroaches were often a problem. For me, it came down to figuring out the most obvious places they were getting into my unit (vents in the kitchen and bathroom; gap under the front door) and blocking those with screen and small brads or a rubber door sweep. The perimeter spray is often helpful. They may come in through other openings as well, but check off the big ones. I agree that the condo board and landlord may not be able to do much to help here — if the woman owns her unit, they can only offer her the regular spraying services — unless it’s to change the locks on the trash chute and explain to her again that it’s not ok to throw things down there. If the building has an on-site manager, he or she may be able to help with the trash as well.

    But you also don’t “have to get used to it” permanently. Some buildings do have roaches, of course, but others don’t. You might need to do some roach bombing and perimeter spray now, but you shouldn’t feel that every place you rent in the city will have bugs.

    I think it would be helpful to introduce yourself and let her know that you’re just down the hall if she needs anything. If you knock on her door, the worst she can do is ignore you, and it may be productive to start a relationship.

  • You should always be sympathetic. But you have to confront the situation and the individual who you believe created it.

    Be direct and kind with her. But when she ignores you (which she will) go ahead and get the landlord, old folks’ services and help for the homebound of all sorts on the case.

    And if she asks, tell her it was you. This is a conflict situation, like it or not, you just have to handle it as nicely as you can. And that includes being open and direct.

  • My husband and I use to live in a building in NYC that had a similar problem with an older tenant who lived their for years under rent control and was the source of the roach problem. All the other tenants suffered because of it. We had a exterminator for the building but we still had roaches. I did some research and found this product:
    Advion Roach Bait Gel. It is a professional strength and killed every roach in our apartment within a week. It was scary how many we found–but it did the job and they never came back. We put the gel on shared walls, bathroom, front door, windows and the kitchen. We moved 2 years later, no roaches in our place even though I saw a few in the hallway and our neighbor upstairs complained that she still saw them. I gave her the rest of our gel and recommended everyone use it in our building. It is illegal to buy the product in NYC, but I think you can purchase it on the net as a DC resident.

  • I’m having a similar problem at the moment. I live in a townhouse and was seeing the occasional roach, maybe once every 2 months. I’m next to a house that has multiple families in it and a backyard filled with trash, and the roaches were usually spotted coming from the side of the house we share with these neighbors. I recently went away for a business trip, and when I returned 2 weeks later the population had exploded, so it looks like I’ll have to hire an exterminator. Can anyone recommend a good one?

  • It’s too late. You should’ve seen this before and never moved in.

    At this point, you can not do much. You can alleviate the situation somewhat, but unless your building is willing to spend XX,XXX on numerous detailed treatments in the course of a year – and I can tell you right now they are not willing – the problem will persist. It’s just the way it is. Once a place is infested, it takes way too much money to clean it up for the clean up to be practical. All the fumigation stuff just mitigates the problem, it doesn’t eliminate it.

  • Roaches eat decaying organic matter, then anywhere not frequently cleaned of organic matter (including dust/skin) that also provides moisture to promote decay could be game–once they move in.

    Seal your points of entry (loose mortar joints, pipe holes cutting through walls and ceilings, etc.) and clean up the sources. Her plant isn’t feeding a colony. The walls, ceilings, etc. may well be full of roaches. You might be surprized by the assortment of stuff you’ll find in your walls & ceilings. The grease comment was some truth–neglected top of kitchen cabinet grease. And unsealed trash cans.

    As for this one woman, call social service pros, maybe they’ll do something amazing, but if not, don’t be afraid that the universe presented you with this challenge. Aging in isolation can be a devastatingly lonely experience. And isolation can embitter.

    But remember trust is earned and you haven’t earned it yet. A first step might be to separate the roach issue from the neighbor issue. Folks will smell the same projection of blame that some of us did, regardless of whether you actually feel such in your heart. That won’t disarm suspicion.


  • Wow – this has gotten a bit ‘large’, I would say. It happens that I live in the same building, know the neighbor personally and have been in her apartment on several occasions. She complains to the Condo Board, at length, about the legion of roaches that attack her cat’s food bowl and carpet her kitchen floor – but I have never seen One. She also has a permanent entry on our monthly exterminator’s list. She is not a hoarder and is, in fact, very fastidious about cleaning her unit. She is a little batty, very genteel and, belied by her small frame and stature, extremely strong willed. She remains incensed by our decision to discontinue the use of the trash chutes (doing so won a major war against a rat and roach infestation on our lower levels) claiming it a stripping away of an amenity she had come to depend on; she deposits her tiny bundles of trash in the hallway, hourly, in stubborn protest. Bear in mind that the ‘feeble old lady’ you have painted a picture of often travels by local bus, in the worst of weather wearing a simple wool coat, spandex pants and heels (always heels!). It may seem convenient to blame our ‘errant’ neighbor for the pest-ills of our building, and she does deserve a certain amount of blame, but that is an oversimplification. Our building is over one-hundred years old, has been renovated several times, the floor plans changed twice, resulting in many ‘holes’ and cavities that are a challenge to fill. Pest control, and devising new methods of erradication, appears on our Board’s agenda monthly and, though we have not yet won the war, we believe we are making progress toward that end.

  • Added note: We do have two ‘true’ hoarders in our building, both reclusive eccentrics, and neither of them have any evidence of roach or mouse infestation. Believe it or not.

  • What about a leaky pipe in that part of the building?

Comments are closed.