New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

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Adjusting as Residents Grow Old and Infirm


This is the dawning of the Age of Octogenarians.

"All those people who were 60 when their buildings converted in 1985 are now over 80," says attorney James Samson. "You have co-ops that are quasi-retirement communities." And as your building gets greyer, your board should be concerned — for humanitarian reasons, for liability questions and for safety's sake. On the one hand, a co-op or condo is a business concern designed to increase shareholder/real estate value. On the other, it's a community — or at least that's the rationale co-op boards have long used to exclude potential buyers, even those with impeccable finances. But you're not a community if you don't commune.

New York City has one of the country's highest concentrations of people 65 or older. How do boards cope? "You have two types," says Jonathan Klein, president of the New York branch of Wentworth Management. "One is reactionary and deals with issues when the issues become apparent. [The other is] proactive — boards [that] put together [or coordinate with] programs like Meals on Wheels, or a lecture series or other services they can make available to seniors."

"As a legal matter, a co-op is a stockholder company, so it would not have any more obligations than GM," says attorney Emily Klotz, a specialist in elder law. "On a moral level, it's a person's home, and the co-op has chosen to include this person as a member of the stockholding community. If you're going to assume the responsibility of having that person as a stockholder, you should be equally responsive to exigent circumstances that the person may be facing."

That means, she says, "If a person looks like they haven't bathed in a week or is having difficulty speaking and is slurring words, maybe it's time to call a family member or a doctor or APS," meaning the Adult Protective Services program of the New York City Human Resources Administration's Department of Social Services.

A Case of the Collyers

Bathing and speaking problems are fairly minor compared to what some have seen. Management executive David Kuperberg, president of Cooper Square Realty, recounts cases where residents "become a hazard to themselves and others in the building [with] large collections of newspapers and other junk" that could be flammable. There are also "bad odors, infestations from pests and vermin and noise complaints such as TVs played really loudly."

"We've had every kind of situation," says Steven Hyatt, executive vice president of Wentworth New York. "I recall a woman in one of our buildings who imagined we were sending poison gas through the radiator. She'd run through the hallways saying she was being poisoned." APS assigned a social worker to her, "and though she's still delusional, she doesn't act out that way."

Klotz recalls a woman in her 90s "who was highly demented. She would walk in the lobby naked or with her fur coat on and naked underneath. And though she had the money, she was not paying her monthly co-op maintenance."

Collyer Brothers news photo

The woman also apparently had Collyer Brothers Syndrome, named for those famous recluses of 1930s and '40s New York whose obsessive-compulsive disorder and disposophobia resulted in a townhouse filled with (see room at right) 100 tons of old newspapers, assorted junk and rubbish and, eventually, the two brothers' bodies. After the woman's co-op board finally revoked her proprietary lease, "a marshal came in to list her assets," says Klotz, "and the hoarding had been so bad he couldn't see the couch."

Drawing the Thin Grey Line

Such extreme cases have also occurred at a roughly 500-unit co-op in northern New Jersey, says the board secretary, who requested anonymity. "We have had one individual visit the lobby and proceed outdoors while dressed in lingerie with no dress or coat," he says. "We had an elderly individual relieve him/herself in the elevator cab. Our superintendents were called to investigate the odor of natural gas to find that an individual had disassembled the apartment's stove [and] then turned the gas jets on full and could not fathom why the stove was not lighting."

Yet this secretary also has "complaints" that are remarkably petty and trivial: "The wife of one elderly resident, whose serious afflictions confined him to a wheelchair, would deposit her spouse in the lobby for hours 'for some fresh air' … another resident visits the lobby each day, as one would do so in an assisted-living facility and sits in one of the chairs for hours." Heaven forefend! Old people clearly in sight in the lobby! Using up our fresh air!

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