PUBLISHED: 3:56 PM on Wednesday, April 25, 2007
Take care of our lonely elders

Dad always went his own way.

He was the first (and only) of his eight siblings to attend college. When he graduated, he found the girl of his dreams and moved far from the rest of his extended family-who live close to this day.

Throughout his life he did his own thing, fought his own battles, never asked for help.

So when Mom had died, he'd remarried badly, he continued to try new jobs and towns, my brothers and I left him to the independence he'd lived by.

And so we didn't notice the signals.

When he explained away a stumbling step with "my knee's just a little weak." When his speech was a little slurred, we just chalked it up to being tired. When our step-mom seemed shaky, we did the same.

We didn't get the wakeup call until Dad fell trying to carry in firewood, smashed his leg near the hip-and lay on the floor for more than a day without anyone to check on him.

Even through the treatment, though he never walked again, and the realization that he'd battled MS alone without serious treatment, that his walk and speech were symptoms of larger, critical issues, that his wife was in the throes of Parkinson's disease, we let him call the shots.

He still wanted his independence, so still we tried to let him.

We thought in-home care would be the answer, until we learned some of those hired helpers were stealing credit cards, others threatening him.

When he had to move to a full-time facility, the damage was done and he died within days. He died too young and never got to enjoy those last years.

It didn't have to be that way.

In Juneau and Southeast Alaska today, there are wonderful people like Dad who are trying to go it alone. Probably much of the reason they are here - having enjoyed a life in Alaska - is the very independence that now makes it so hard for them to ask for, or even realize, they may need help.

The Gatekeeper Project sponsored by Southeast Senior Service is dedicated to helping senior citizens remain independent.

The key is that if we and they don't realize they need just a little help now, later it may be too late to salvage their independence, their health, even their life.

You and I can and need to be Gatekeepers. All it takes is opening our eyes to those around us, especially older people who live alone. Watch for changes in them and their routine-change in dress or appearance, confusion or anxiety, financial troubles, repairs or home care undone. Sometimes it can come as a shock to realize that you haven't seen a neighbor in weeks. And we're not talking a trip down south, but knowing they're home but not in their regular routine.

Newspaper and mail carriers play a key role, because they visit most homes every day, and notice mail or papers undone.

And when you see something that's not right, call Southeast Senior Services at 463-6177. You don't need to provide much information-just who you are, who you are concerned about and why-and it's all confidential.

Their mission is never to remove someone from their home except as a last resort. But if they get to know an elderly person while they are still independent, it lays the groundwork for better care down the road too.

And it's being a good neighbor. In our isolated home here in the Southeast, often all we have to count on is ourselves and each other.

For more information on how you can help, the number is the same-463-6177.

Remember, it's easy. All you have to do is open your eyes, and care about those around you.

Lee Leschper is general manager of the Capital City Weekly and advertising director of the Juneau Empire. Send e-mail to him at