Friday, March 18, 2005

'The Scariest Way to Die -- Disappearing in Plain View"

I work with older adults. One of our friends in another local agency faxed us a Mark Hare column in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, about a man named Charles Lyon, found dead in his home in Rochester. It's estimated that he had been dead for three months or more before he was found. He had no family in the area and no close friends.

Lyon had been ill for a long time and had regular visits from a county caseworker. When she visited the home in November and December of last year and got no response from Lyon, neighbors told her they thought he'd gone into a nursing home. When she couldn't find him in the system she called the police, who determined that they didn't have sufficient cause to enter the home. The caseworker contacted the police again, and 12 days later they did go inside the home, where they found Lyon dead.

Tony Powlowski, a neighbor of Lyon's, noted, "People need to pay more attention to each other."

Hare writes: "The death of Charles Lyon is troubling because it represents a reality none of us wants. Each of us wants to matter, to be important to the people in our lives. This is part of the human essence -- the deep desire to be a part of community, to impact those in our community, to leave something of ourselves behind, to know that we will be missed."

Hare goes on to say, "And then one day, probably in October, [Lyon] went inside his house and never left it again. Somewhere along the way, Charles Lyon became disconnected; he lost contact with family and friends. He knew his neighbors, but only superficially. It's not uncommon. We are acquainted with the people who live nearby, but that doesn't mean we have a relationship, or a key to their homes, or permission to check in when we suspect trouble...there is a natural tendency to keep our distance for the sake of our privacy. But that impulse carries a great risk. It is rare indeed to become as disconnected as Charles Lyon was at the end of life, but it is possible.

"More than 400 years ago, poet John Donne wrote that 'no man is an island, entire of itself; each man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.' Sadly, as Tony Powlowski says, if we don't 'pay more attention to each other,' some will drift out to sea."


Dash said...

I have lived by myself for several years now, and realized only recently that I have acquired some odd habits because of my subconscious awareness of it. For example, I have become extremely cautious about going down into my basement. Should I fall on those steps, there would be no one to help me.

People who live by themselves are indeed aware of their vulnerability on some level. Most, I think, create a "family" of friends whom they can call upon should they fall ill and need someone to pick up some groceries. I have such a "family," a group of friends whom I regularly phone just to "check up" on them. And when I have needed help, I have called upon them confidently, just as I delivered my share of groceries, medicines and rental movies.

But it is something, I think, that has to be cultivated consciously. I don't think people just call up vulnerable people and offer to be part of a composite "family." It's something that really only is obvious to other people who live singly. I don't know that people who live with others are all that conscious of it. Those who live by themselves "get it" more readily, and are sensitive to it.

I'm not accusing; it's natural that it be so. We are often much more sensitive to the suffering of someone who is suffering in the same way we are.

I'm inclined to wonder where Charles's "family" was. I suppose given his age, they may all have died off, or he may not have consciously cultivated one. And I can imagine that his neighbors did not give much thought to whether his "family" was looking after him. They probably just assumed that if he needed them, he would have called upon them, and they'd be attending to him. Or in this case, that he'd already been attended to and moved to a nursing home.

It's interesting. It's sad. It is, unfortunately, understandable. For who want's to pry? Who wants to be pestering someone who doesn't seem to want your care? The maternal side of me pesters. The independent single adult in me says "don't bother them." Sometimes one wins, sometimes the other. How do you know when one should prevail over the other?

LutheranChik said...

I'm always cheered by the community/comraderie I find in our local senior highrises. Most of the residents live alone. They've really developed a sense of family, and take care of one another. (It helps that these are well-run highrises with staff on site most of the time.) Moreover, this is in a rural area, where people tend to be independent to a fault, and where apartment living is a rarity. ("Oh, I could never live so close to someone else!")

Even though my work is only peripheral to the hands-on work our agency does, I interact with "our seniors" quite a bit, and they have enriched my life so much; I enjoy their company. It's sad that some older adults either passively let go of ties to friends and family, as the individual in this story seems to have done, or else deliberately recuse themselves from human society. Our agency is regularly contacted, by concerned neighbors postal workers, meter readers, etc., about elderly "backwoods hermits" who live in tiny travel trailers out in the bush. Oftentimes there's a mental health or substance abuse issue involved. But these folks are usually extremely reluctant to accept any sort of assistance at all, and who seem to find human contact almost painful. It's sometimes hard to know how to help these people.

I'm in a caregiving situation with an elderly parent, so I'm not living alone; but my mother tends to be very socially anxious, doesn't have a lot of friends and is resistant to getting involved at our local senior centers, so I find myself acting in a solo role as her "community," which can be stressful for me, because sometimes I worry about things like being in an accident and leaving her without help. (Because I'm like her social director, she tends to interact with our church family through me...I just don't know what she would do by herself.)

Even though I'm an only child, I've always taken pretty well to communal living. I could see myself in some sort of geriatric cooperative house, with a bunch of other unattached, unreformed crunchy granolas. Almost sounds like a convent.;-) And I've always operated with a "tribal" mentality and created family wherever I found myself.