A friend told me last night that she spent her Sunday cleaning. Not cleaning her own home, but cleaning the home of a neighbor. He is disabled and had become morbidly obese. He lives alone with his 21-year-old son, who is autistic and suffers from cognitive impairment. Unable to get upstairs any more, he sleeps on the floor of his living room, using a broken couch to help himself up in the morning. His kitchen was inches deep in trash. His living area is cluttered with discarded and broken items. There is a path from the door to the bathroom just wide enough for him to traverse with a walker. His stove doesn't work and his refrigerator is iffy.
The house was cluttered but there was no food or dirty dishes lying around, just years and years of trash. As he had gotten sicker, the father had become less and less able to take care of himself or his son. Over time, he became too embarrassed to ask people in. There was no one to help. Things just kept getting worse.
A neighbor, realizing the problem, organized a group to help. Twenty-eight trash bags later, things look a little better. Plans are for another assault on the house next weekend. People are out looking for a stove and reliable refrigerator. The father is both embarrassed—"this is really, really hard for me," he says—and also so very relieved.
When one of the helpers stopped by Monday morning to drop off a broom, the son came out, hugged him, and said just one thing: "Thank you."
This morning, I read a piece in the New York Times called Unable to Cope, Unwilling to Accept Aid, about the problem of older people who live alone, fall into decline, and stop caring for themselves. The opening story is of a man who had stopped bathing or using the toilet and was throwing his waste out the window of his upscale Texas home. He saw nothing wrong with how he was living.
But that is often NOT the case. That piece ended with another story of a woman who, for many reasons, was in and out of the emergency room because of chronic pain. It was only when someone finally checked out why she couldn't properly take her many medications did they learn of the problems and were able to help.
Research shows that most often self-neglect is due to underying issues like depression, dementia, or mental illness. Often people who self-neglect lack adequate social support. Less often, they refuse help.
Dr. Dong, the author of a study of elderly people who self-neglect, emphasizes that we need to respect the right of mentally competent adults who choose to live in squalor. But we also need to be ready to step in for the many who are alone, overwhelmed, or too proud to ask for help that they need.
The Times article ends with her quote: “If you have an older person who you’re concerned about, raise the red flag. Call adult protective services if you’re worried. All of us have a significant role to play in watching out for our neighbors.”
Stepping in certainly seems to have made a huge difference in the lives of at least two people living in rural Ohio.