Approaching a stranger for whom you feel pity?
July 22, 2007 5:12 PM   Subscribe

Approaching a stranger for whom you feel pity – good idea or lousy?

So I live in NYC and there’s a woman I’ve seen around every now and then in the neighborhood. She’s very old, and she has that really awful osteoporosis that means she is so bent in two that she can do little but stare at her own feet. She wears a shapeless skirt held up with dozens of safety pins and there are gaping holes in her shoes. I generally see her on Sundays in the supermarket, when she always buys a tiny can of Vienna sausages and two small cups of fruit salad. I typically have a basket full of fancy olives and fresh herbs and expensive steaks and whatnot and it makes me feel utterly lousy. She doesn’t seem particularly crazy and always takes the time to nicely thank the disdainful checkout girl. She rips at my heart. I could be completely off base, but she seems to be lonely. Or alone, at any rate. I would like to talk to her, maybe even take her for a nice meal at the diner or something. Am I nuts? And if not, how would I approach her in a way that doesn’t scream “I feel sorry for you.” Have any of you ever done such a thing?
posted by CunningLinguist to Human Relations (23 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Start simple, say hello, try to pass a few minutes chatting about stupid stuff like the weather. After doing that a few times introduce yourself. Start using her name when you see her, see if she is open to that sort of stuff, ask after where she lives, ask after family, give open ended offers of assistance, not too pushy. I think if you are low key and respectful you may get places. But, don't ever look at it as doing a once or twice good deed to alleviate guilt, if you are going to do it, become friends and offer help out of friendship rather than simple pity.
posted by edgeways at 5:23 PM on July 22, 2007 [2 favorites]

Yes, she's my elderly neighbour, who certainly was a stranger when I bought this place. Just started by saying hi and chatting about whatever's right there. Old people will talk if they want to. Many want to. Over time, I've been able to help her out with some things and now that she is unwell and none of her kids or grandkids are visiting her much, she really appreciates it. She lost her daughter a few years ago in a car accident. She compares her daughter to me. She appreciates my small contributions. Go for it. Just be casual. Then at some point you will see your opening to offer her a treat (for some specious reason or no reason) or to ask her to share in your little celebration or whatever.
posted by Listener at 5:24 PM on July 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

Talk to her as you would to anyone else: mention the lousy weather or the poor selection at the supermarket or whatever. If she seems receptive, continue the conversation; if she brushes you off, retreat with good grace. Do not under any circumstances adopt an "oh you poor dear, let me comfort you with my company" attitude. You are not nuts, you are a good person, but in your situation it's hard to avoid a Lady Bountiful air, so if you decide to make an approach, try your best to avoid it.
posted by languagehat at 5:27 PM on July 22, 2007

On non-preview: great minds think alike!
posted by languagehat at 5:28 PM on July 22, 2007

I just can't think of how to start a conversation, especially if she can't look me in the face to see if I'm a psycho or not.
posted by CunningLinguist at 5:29 PM on July 22, 2007

Just start talking to her when you see her. How are you? Nice day, isn't it? etc.

If she seems at least receptive to your niceties, then maybe the next time you see her, buy 2 of something, but make sure it's something mild in flavor. Time your exit from the store to catch up with her. Tell you realized you bought an extra of something and you can't possibly finish them both, and that you'd love for her to make use of it so it doesn't go to waste.

If she snaps at you or ignores you, just wish her a good day and continue to be polite. If she accepts, then smile and be on your way. Maybe in another week or 2 you can offer her something else, without the story. You may even buy a few skirts that might fit her at a secondhand store, and leave them for her in a bag by her door, if you know where she lives.

A few words however: I was raised in a ghetto where people such as you describe were a common sight. Based on my experiences, I would say do not try to be her best friend, or take her to dinner, or anything like that. She is in her comfort zone, and the best meal in the world is unbearable if you are not comfortable eating it. I doubt she would enjoy visiting a nice restaurant.

Concentrate your efforts of talking to her in neutral territory: the store, the street, other places you may see her.

Be aware that she may well suffer from some sort of mental illness, so don't be surprised if she reacts inconsistently or in a way that you don't expect. Don't expect her to even remember that you gave her anything, if she even accepts it.

Anything you try to give her has to be as easy to eat as the sausages and fruit salad because you don't know what utensils she has.

NO you are not nuts to try and help. But neither do you need to feel lousy. Your success did not cause her poverty. In fact, she may not even be poor! There is no way to know. What you are feeling is normal human compassion, not pity.

Take it a little at a time, be genuine, be friendly, smile, listen if she talks to you.

In my experience, if someone is dressed as you describe, there is often something going on beyond poverty, because towns of any size have charities that give away clothing and food and household goods to anyone who would ask. There is even a possibility that she never changes her skirt because she doesn't know how. Some mental illnesses and forms of dimentia can cause such symptoms.

Good for you in reaching out like this! You may well help a person who really needs it. At the very least you will know you tried.
posted by The Deej at 5:39 PM on July 22, 2007 [2 favorites]

I just can't think of how to start a conversation, especially if she can't look me in the face to see if I'm a psycho or not.

If she was blind she wouldn't be able to see you either, and that shouldn't preclude you talking to her.

"Hi, how are you today?"
posted by The Deej at 5:41 PM on July 22, 2007

You live near her -- that's reason enough to start a conversation, isn't it? "You know, I always see you around the neighborhood and always want to introduce myself..." etc etc.

My grandmother was a bit like that woman, and while she certainly did not want anyone's pity or sympathy, she certainly could always use some help carrying groceries or books from the library. And, even more importantly, she was lonely. She loved company from anyone, and would greatly appreciate a chance to play cards or just sit with a cup of coffee with someone in the neighborhood.
posted by Ms. Saint at 5:55 PM on July 22, 2007

You have a good soul, and it's easier than you think.

This is how it goes: Every day for each of us, there's a kindness that needs to be done. You are fortunate in finding someone who seems to need a kindness. Be yourself, don't presume, but just talk to her and she could turn out to be a wonderful friend.
posted by vers at 6:02 PM on July 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

Yes I have also done this. Befriended a semi-homeless man who panhandles in front of the place where I buy my fancy coffee, and for much the same reason. Here I was spending $13 a pound on coffee and he didn't have proper shoes. I started talking to him, succumbed to the panhandling, and now I look for him, check up on him at the vet's home where he stays sometimes, get him to the doctor if he needs a ride, and yes, give him money.

This is a major mitzvah. G-d will reward you (that sounds facetious, but I mean it.
posted by nax at 6:14 PM on July 22, 2007

If you think she needs a friend, approach her, but don't do so out of pity, or at least don't let pity show. If someone feels that you see them as pitiable or pathetic, it will make them feel angry and worse about themselves.
posted by jonmc at 6:23 PM on July 22, 2007

That sounded harsher than I meant to, but I stand by not acting like you pity her. next time you see her in the market, say 'how ya doing?' casually like you're just two ladies shopping, if she responds, proceed the way you would with any casual friendship.
posted by jonmc at 6:26 PM on July 22, 2007

Sometimes elderly people dress like that and eat like that not because they are poor but because they are very cheap. They see cheapness as the ultimate virtue and don't really care what onlookers think about their appearance.

My mom had a bit of this. She wouldn't take a thing from anyone, dressed in 30-year-old clothes she had originally bought at a garage sale that were full of holes, and thought saving money was the ultimate virtue. She liked it when people spoke with her, but didn't much appreciate people giving her things. She thought they were not very bright.
posted by watsondog at 7:03 PM on July 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

If you dial 311 you can talk to someone at the NYC Dept. for the Aging who might have some tips for you on how to best handle the situation. Maybe DFTA isn't aware of her condition yet and she's in need of outreach. DFTA has a wide array of services for seniors, I interned there a long time ago and it was an extremely well run agency. If you go to the DFTA office and get some program literature maybe you could approach her with that and ask her if she's aware of DFTA as an ice breaker.

When I was at DFTA we also got calls like these all the time from concerned citizens. Now that I work in homeless services I still get them all the time. It never hurts to get input from a professional and usually professionals are glad to give it.
posted by The Straightener at 7:30 PM on July 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

I would too start chatting her up in the grocery store. After reaching a level where she felt comfortable, offer to carry her groceries. You would be able to find out where she lives, don't expect to be invited inside.

My elderly neighbor would be mortified if I bought her groceries or gave her (canned goods etc) food. The way aroud this was easy.

Several times a week I would bring her prepared food in a disposible plastic tub. I would tell her I made way too much, we could't eat it all, hated to see it go to waste, the kids didn't like it, blah, blah, blah. She would have never come to dinner at my home.

Deep down we both knew what was going on, but it allowed her to save face and retain her dignity.
posted by JujuB at 7:36 PM on July 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

I should have mentioned that DFTA delivers food to seniors in their homes free of charge.

Q. I am a senior and it’s getting very hard for me to perform household tasks such as preparing meals. How can I get help with personal care or meals delivered to my home?

Answer: The Department for the Aging contracts with Case Management Agencies that provide access to home-delivered meals, home care attendants, chore services, and other in-home supportive services. To locate the Case Management Agency or Senior Center in your area, please use our online service locator on top of this page.

posted by The Straightener at 7:41 PM on July 22, 2007

In 1992 I befriended an old lady named Fern. She lived in a crappy hotel on the same block as the Glendale restaurant I was a waitress at. I met her when another woman (Violet -- yes, they were BOTH named after plants) who lived in her hotel brought her in to have lunch and then skipped out the back door, leaving Fern to pay with no wallet. She was so tragic and so frail, with her big eyes and her straw-like straight hair stapled to the sides of her head with children's barrettes... she just got in my heart so I paid for her meal and we became friends. From then on I regularly brought her leftover food from the restaurant. Sometimes I even took her to eat at a local coffee shop, where she'd go on about how fancy it was and talk to me as though I was her best friend. (Actually, I probably was.) Then after a while she began inviting me into her crappy hotel room to visit and I tried helping her clean it up and make it nicer. (The next time I'd come back it'd be dirty again, but I still did that about once a month.) Over time I found out all about her life and her history, and it was clear that she really appreciated having someone to talk to. Sometimes I would show up with groceries for her and stationary with stamps so she could write her family. I don't know if she ever did write them, though.

It was hard... on one hand I felt like I was making a difference but on the other hand I felt totally helpless to make her life any better. It was what it was. I was in my 20s but had a distinct "there but by the grace of God goes my future" kind of feel about her. Sometimes I even considered helping her find a better place to live and taking her in or something. But I knew that I couldn't do that. Also, she was growing more senile all the time, and I already had enough responsibility to my own parents old age.

I wanted to track down her family, but my efforts never got very far (It would've been easier now with the internet). And then in 1994 the Northridge quake happened and her hotel was condemned. I went back to it looking for her and they told me that the last time they saw her she was in an earthquake shelter. I knew she was probably enjoying the shelter more than most people, because there would be a large captive audience for her to talk to... and she loved to talk. I didn't really try to see her again after that.

At times I have felt guilty that I never worked harder to hunt her down. That I never took care of her. I know that I did more than was ever expected from me. I know that I'm a better person for the time I spent with Fern and the ways that I helped her. I know it meant a lot to her. And somehow that eases the guilt a bit. Somewhere I even have audio tapes of her, because I found her rambling so interesting and funny. Fern was a trip. I really hope her last years weren't too bad, and I like to think that my efforts did bring her some small happiness... leastwise, I fed her for free for a few years there. I went back to the hotel one more time and from what I was told she was being cared for by the government last I heard, whatever that means.

Moral of the story here... it's good to step up and be kind to people when you feel the way you're feeling. It's good to do what you can and give some unconditional kindness to others, especially to people that seem invisible to most of society. You can really learn a lot about yourself as a person from it and it's good to see that little things CAN make a difference in other people's lives. You may have to set limits though, because you probably can't "fix" this woman. You can make her life a little better, but you can't take responsibility for it. Unfortunately, we all end up being responsible for our own salvation.

Giving someone a little attention and making someone's life a little better by making them feel special can feel really rewarding, though. So I say go for it. Just keep your efforts small and within reason.
posted by miss lynnster at 8:27 PM on July 22, 2007 [8 favorites]

My husband's grandma is a very elderly, independent woman who is quite frail, but still enjoys getting out and doing things for herself. While she gets a tad grumpy when we try to do things for her (helping her out of cars, going to the grocery store for her), she does regularly need some help. She prefers to ask for the help though.

It is good to keep in mind that the +80 crowd lived through the great depression and WWII and that it affected them in peculiar frugal ways.
posted by pluckysparrow at 9:02 PM on July 22, 2007

Have to add. You observe she seems to lack for food. Something else may be her concern. If you talk, you may find out what that is when she asks you. Or maybe like my neighbour she'll complain about the difficulty of getting something done. There's your opening. My neighbour is a thin bundle of twigs like a bird, shocking when I hug her, but no, it's not a pork chop for dinner she wants to join me for. Old people often have difficulty getting food down, and there's a good chance she has a limited range of things she eats. My neighbour was most grateful for help getting her leaves raked on her double lot, an onerous job now that her husband is gone.
posted by Listener at 9:39 PM on July 22, 2007

Never, ever, never ever underestimate what a simple word or small act of kindness can mean to another person. To you, it may seem too small to even consider it as important, for them, it can mean everything.
posted by Jacen at 9:56 PM on July 22, 2007 [3 favorites]

As I was remembering Fern I started to remember some other people who lived in that hotel with her. There was one woman named Carolyn... and I learned a big lesson from my interactions with her. What I learned was the power of finding out someone's name and addressing them by it. So I would say that is one of the first things you might want to try. It's amazing what it means to people.

This woman Carolyn was completely insane really. She wore four hats at once and would walk up and down the street mumbling. Just crazy, crazy stuff. But Fern told me her name and I remembered it. So one day she was walking down the street mumbling and instead of ducking away as I usually did, I stood firm facing her and said, "Hello Carolyn" very brightly to her as she was passing. It was so amazing... I remember it so clearly. She actually stopped, tilted her head, and looked into my eyes. And then she said, "Hello. How are you today?" as sane and lucid as anyone could imagine. I replied, "I'm fine thank you." She nodded her head & said, "That's good. That's good." And then the switch turned off and she was crazy again.

At first I didn't know what to make of it. I knew she wasn't pretending to be nuts. She definitely was a crazy old lady, it was no act. But what I realized was that somehow hearing someone respectfully calling her by her name, it triggered some kind of a window to open. For a few seconds, she regressed into someone she used to be. And then it was gone and she was crazy again.

After that, I used to make a point to say hi to Carolyn. The window didn't always open, I'd say there was a reaction maybe about half of the time. Sometimes I'd only see a look of clarity in her eyes for a millisecond, that would be it, but one time it lasted for a good three minutes where we exchanged quite a few pleasantries. We talked about her hats a bit too.

It's just amazing what small things make a difference... like just saying someone's name to them. I learned a big lesson from that.
posted by miss lynnster at 11:56 PM on July 22, 2007

Just do it, don't overthink it. Because she's old, bent, etc. doesn't mean the normal laws of human interaction are suspended. Assuming you don't normally say condescending, intrusive things to other people (i.e., you can read social cues) there's no reason to think that ability will suddenly no longer serve you.

My wife used to live near a kind of sketchy nursing home in Somerville, MA and one day she decided to pop in and ask whether any of the residents could use a friend. She wound up being great pals with this 90 year old woman whose family had kind of dumped her there. My wife learned all about this woman's childhood growing up in rural Rhode Island around the turn of the century. They would just sit there and tell stories to each other. The point is not that you will necessarily have a rewarding relationship grow out of this impulse, but that it's really so little to do and potentially could make a huge difference in someone's life.

Don't overthink it.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 7:23 AM on July 23, 2007

Update: I, of course, never saw her again. But thanks guys.
posted by CunningLinguist at 7:13 AM on September 21, 2007

« Older How do I create a mail merge in Gmail?   |   Places to go and people to see? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.