It's fair to say that the specifics of Madsen's ordeal are unusual, but, sadly, the general situation--elderly person injured or incapacited in their home and unable to call for help--is not. And, Walnut Creek is known for its older population. Twenty-five percent of Walnut Creek residents are 65 or older.
Here's what happened with Madsen:
On Wednesday May 27, she returned from a senior trip to a casino resort, but hadn’t eaten much that day. She decided to take a bath before dinner, but didn’t realize how famished and fatigued she was. The kicker of the story is that, once trapped in the tub, she kept herself from becoming dehydrated by using a rubber duck as a cup to drink bathwater.
From what I can tell from the story and from talking to Madsen herself, she had a large extended family who were diligent about keeping in contact with her, though Madsen says they didn’t really have a plan set up.
She usually had daily afternoon phone chats with one daughter, who lives in Ventura County. She met up with family members who live in the area for breakfast on Saturday mornings.
Everyone knew Madsen, who had been a member of the Walnut Creek School board in the 1950s and 1960s, to be healthy and active, going on senior bus trips and regularly meeting up with friends for coffee and volunteering and socializing at one of the local senior centers (pictured above). “I go out a lot at night,” Madsen added.
So, when her Ventura County daughter didn’t reach her by phone for a couple days, the daughter assumed that her busy, active mother out and about. Still, she asked her Walnut Creek sister to pop by mom’s house before the Saturday morning breakfast meet-up. The Walnut Creek sister immediately knew something was wrong when she pulled up to the house and saw her mom’s car and several newspapers in the driveway.
Madsen spent three days in the hospital, recovering from dry skin and the equivalent of bed sores.
“It was a weird dumb stupid thing,” says Madsen, with a laugh. “I will never take another bath as long as I live.”
She adds that the family now has a plan, which is what she advises for every family with an elderly family member who lives on his or her own. In her family plan, she’ll call someone every morning, and if she doesn’t, someone will go check on her.
My 84-year-old mother doesn’t live alone. My husband, son and I live with her. A temporary situation following my husband’s diagnosis and breakdown turned into a permanent one. He and I needed to regroup, and then my father became ill and died in 2003. Meanwhile, my son settled into the neighborhood school, the very one I attended. This is not how I expected life to turn out, living in my childhood home, but I accept it as fate, destiny, whatever. Our post-World War II tract house is small, so it’s not always easy all of us living in one house, but we manage.
And it's probably for the best, mostly for the sake of my son and my mom. I’m not so sure my mom could live on her own. She misses my father , and she’d get lonely, even though she very much likes her alone time in the house. She’s in good health, can cook and clean for herself, and manages her finances. But she has problems with balance and has taken a couple falls. She can also be forgetful, and I’ve come home to find the stove left on. (Okay, I’ve done that once or twice myself.)
Anne, our 91-year-old neighbor, recently died. We all assumed she was in good health; up until a few years ago, she walked herself into downtown Walnut Creek to do her shopping. She also has family in the area, a son who lives in Lafayette, who would regularly stop by and take her out places.
Her death came suddenly. It was during the heat wave following Memorial Day weekend. A neighbor found Anne sitting on her front stoop, looking tired and wan. Anne said she had been suffering from diarrhea. The neighbor took her to the hospital, where she was admitted for severe dehydration. She died a few days later, apparently of a heart attack.
We live in one of Walnut Creek’s older neighborhoods, with a few residents who have lived in their homes a very long time and who now live by themselves, as far as I can tell. I don’t know any of these older women well, but they seem eager to stay independent, and I hope they have family or neighbors close to them who are keeping an eye out.
As Madsen says her family learned, it’s important for families to have a plan. What is yours?