FRENCHVILLE, Maine — It is unclear how big a part — if any — subzero temperatures played in the death of 80-year-old Leon Gagnon Jr., who was discovered unconscious in a cold home Wednesday morning.
Whether Gagnon was incapacitated by the cold or a medical incident, his death should serve as a reminder to relatives, friends and neighbors of the elderly to check on vulnerable individuals who live alone and might need help this time of year, according to the Aroostook Area Agency on Aging.
According to a friend and a family member, the temperature in the house when Gagnon was found was near 35 degrees and the home’s oil tank was empty.
“We really don’t know what happened,” Gagnon’s brother Roger Gagnon of Fort Kent said Friday.
Roger Gagnon said he was not sure when someone had last seen or spoken to his brother. He said their sister had been looking in on him, but she is in the hospital.
The family, he said, had been trying to convince Leon Gagnon, who lived alone in the house next to the Frenchville town garage, to enter a nursing home but had been unsuccessful.
Roger Gagnon said he grew concerned on Wednesday when he could not reach his brother by phone.
He said he contacted Harold Bouchard, a retired farmer and family friend who lives in Frenchville, and asked him to make sure Leon was OK.
Bouchard said Friday that he picked up a spare set of keys to Leon Gagnon’s home at the Frenchville town office and when he arrived at the home he found the elderly man unconscious and groaning on the floor.
“It was cold in that house,” Bouchard said. “Too cold, maybe around 35 degrees.”
Bouchard called for an ambulance and Gagnon was taken to Northern Maine Medical Center in Fort Kent.
Soon after his brother was admitted to the hospital, Roger Gagnon said, he was told the 80-year-old had died, but he was unsure of the cause of death.
On Friday, NMMC spokesperson Joanne Fortin said in an email to the BDN that she was not permitted to release the cause of Gagnon’s death.
Roger Gagnon said an extra key to his brother’s place was kept at the Frenchville town office because his brother was known for locking the house and not answering sometimes when family members or others knocked at the door.
John Davis, Frenchville town manager, on Friday said he was familiar with Leon Gagnon and with his recent death, but declined to comment on the circumstances.
Temperatures in northern Maine dropped to minus 12 Tuesday night and climbed into the single digits above zero Wednesday morning, according to the National Weather Service in Caribou.
With the recent stretch of extreme cold, anyone knowing of elderly residents living alone should be extra vigilant, said Jessica Maurer, executive director of the Maine Association of Area Agencies on Aging.
“Neighbors need to know their neighbors and check on them,” Maurer said Friday afternoon.
When it comes to heating in the winter, Maurer said, help is available from local, state and federal sources, including the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
“The area agencies on aging are here and we will do what we can to help people in crisis,” she said. “We know every rock to turn over to help people.”
It is important the elderly do not let their pride get in the way of asking for help, Maurer said, but if they do, that’s where neighbors can come in.
“It starts with someone noticing if there is suddenly no smoke coming out of a chimney,” she said. “More importantly, it’s just checking when you know there is a vulnerable senior citizen living somewhere.”
That community involvement is crucial, according to Steve Farnham, executive director of the Aroostook Area Agency on Aging.
“There are a lot of agencies out there that can help,” including local law enforcement, Farnham said.
“Law enforcement will do wellness checks [and] they are really the only 24-7 agencies around who have that ability,” he said.
In Fort Kent, Police Chief Tom Pelletier said his officers routinely check on elderly residents.
“If a relative has not heard from a loved one in town, definitely give us a call,” Pelletier said Friday. “We will do a check and are happy to swing by.”
But before any checks can be made, Farnham said, someone has to notice.
“The reality is there is no agency that has the ability to be the eyes and ears out in the community [and] in these situations it comes down to families doing regular checks or, if there is no family, friends and neighbors.”
There is nothing wrong with “poking your nose in someone’s business if you are concerned about a resident,” Farnham said.
Besides paying attention to whether smoke is coming out of a chimney, neighbors should take note if a driveway is shoveled or mail is piling up, Maurer said.
At those times, she said, it is important to contact a family member or someone in law enforcement who is ready and willing to conduct well-being checks on residents.