A pensioner in her nineties who fell seriously ill at home was saved from serious harm when a vigilant post office worker called gardaí after she became concerned about a missed pension payment.
Paddy O’Brien, who has worked as an advocate for the elderly in Cork for 60 years, says that three recent inquests which detailed how pensioners lay dead in their homes for months without being discovered were far from isolated incidents.
He says having the “eyes and ears” of people in the community can save the lives of the vulnerable.
“In the case of the woman in her nineties that person in post office noticed that she hadn’t been calling. She took it upon herself to contact the gardaí. The gardaí then had to break the door down and climb in.
"They found the lady inside and she was very ill. Thank God she is alive but if they hadn’t gone to the house what would have happened?”
Paddy, who runs the Over Sixties talent competition in the city and who first started visiting the elderly as a 14 year old messenger boy, says that there is an epidemic of loneliness amongst pensioners.
“I am appalled and shocked at the amount of people who have no contact with their families. Even at Christmas. There are people in this country dying of a broken heart because their sons and daughters have disowned them completely.
"I go to nursing homes on a daily basis and visitors don’t come near the door. People turn up with boxes of chocolates at Christmas and they aren’t seen for the rest of the year.
"I have visited schools and I would say to children “how many of you visit your grandparents?” And you would be stunned at how many kids tell me they don’t.”
Such is the disconnection in some families that Paddy once came across a 20-year-old girl who was dropping Meals on Wheels to a woman she later found out was her grandmother.
At the recent inquests it emerged that elderly people receive a letter after 61 days if they fail to pick up their pensions at the post office.
However, Mr O’Brien says the onus is on the Department of Social Protection to introduce a warning system that raises the alarm far earlier.
“I suggest that they reduce it from 61 days to three weeks and then straight off contact the gardai. They are writing to Mary Murphy or Johnny Murphy and if they don’t reply theyjust knock them off the list.
There is a letter in the hall. What good is that to the person if they are ill or dead inside?”
Mr O’Brien is pleading with Irish people to be more vigilant about their elderly friends and neighbours.
“Some people are in a certain frame of mind. Their family say that they were private or didn’t want anybody. And I think you have to speak for them. You aren’t doing anything bad. You are not being disloyal or invading their privacy.
Everyone thinks somebody else is checking in on the person. Stop assuming that other people are doing it. You can save a life. You might be the only person they see.”
Meanwhile, Anne Dempsey Communications manager at Third Age which operates a free national helpline for the elderly from Summerhill in Co Meath, says that disturbing situations amongst the elderly will continue to rise unless changes are made.
“If you take the post offices where people may notice that a person isn’t coming in. Well more of them are closing and pensioners will be going to post offices where they aren’t known at all.
There is also an increased pressure on GPs. They are seeing more and more people if you can get one at all. And it’s only about an eight-minute consultation.
People live different lifestyles now. You hear things like “oh well the person is very independent. “
That independence can come at a cost. Even simple things like check if the neighbours curtains are being pulled every day. Are the lights going on an off? We are an ageing society. We have to be vigilant.”
Sean Moynihan has been CEO of Alone since 2008 and in that time they have trebled the amount of older people supported to age at home.
He says that elderly people always died in their homes in these circumstances. However, he believes the problem will undoubtedly rise as the population ages.
“We are less connected. We need strategies around loneliness and isolation. Once people are disconnected their health and living conditions deteriorate.
There is a big swing with how we deal with communities, friends and neighbours and older relatives. That is why we have grown to two thousand volunteers and our plan is to go to 9,000 volunteers.”
His sentiments were echoed by Brenda Barry. Co-ordinator of the Cork branch of Friendly Call which is visitation and call service for elderly people which also operates in Dublin.
The service makes phone calls to 210 people every day in Cork city a figure which she calls the “tip of the iceberg.”
Brenda says that she has noticed that the people who are dying alone and undiscovered for several months are normally living in built up urban areas.
“I had a client who lived in the same place for 40 years in the city centre and people changed a lot and when she was there first she knew everyone and before she died she didn’t know anybody.
In rural areas people know what you are at. In all the cases in people being left in houses it is mostly urban. People are busy and they don’t notice as much. We aren’t as connected.
It is hard to explain how people can disappear off the radar but they do.”