Caution, isolation kills. This is what Glenda Ross, the social worker at the Olympia Senior Center, told me. Ross is unhappy as she sees more and more disabled and elderly people pushed into isolation. Recently she was involved in a case in which a person’s body was found eight days after death – not until a neighbor noticed an odor.
Ross talks of the disabled and elderly people being put into rooms with four walls, a bed, a TV and phone, maybe Meals-on-Wheels. Perhaps their family has moved to the East Coast and only call at Christmas. A person unable to get out, they languish in loneliness. Perhaps they have not been disabled enough to get Dial-a-Lift transportation, or maybe they can’t get to the doctor to get their form signed in order to get the ride to the doctor. Maybe their bus service has been cut and they can’t drive. How do they get to the store, get their medicine, get a book at the library or peruse any of the normal routines of life? Prisoners in jail live better.
People in this predicament do not call for help. They don’t want to bother someone. The people who do call Ross are the postal carriers and firefighters who see behind the mask of normalcy. In hearing Ross talk, I was reminded of taking a Christmas basket to a couple living in a nice home with lovely drapes showing through the window. My dad carried the basket in and then came back to the car shocked. There was no furniture or food in the house. He told me it was a struggle not to say anything and hurt their pride. It was obvious that they had pride and nothing else left.
Older people who have been widowed grew up in a world where there were sexually assigned roles. Older women who lose their husbands may not know where to take a car to be fixed, how to write a check or pay a bill. Older men left alone can’t fix food or clean their clothing. Developmentally disabled people may miss out on all or any of these skills. Those with vision or hearing problems may not be able to drive.
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People who are old or disabled are frequently sidelined. If you can’t hear, you are left out of conversations. If you don’t walk fast, young people may push you aside to get there first. I don’t know how many times someone has cut in front of me, just having to get around the crippled woman when I am really walking faster than they are! Many times I have been asked why I go to the store when everyone else is there. Of course it is because that is when I can go. While I was working I had the same hours as everyone else and had to shop during the busy times, handicapped or not.
Pets can help the lonely. However, companion animals are often not allowed where the people who need them live, or only with a high pet deposit. Thus people lose their last friends.
Like Ross said, people commiserate with young people with a broken arm. When you are old or disabled, many people see you as being a problem they do not want to deal with.
We developed as herd animals and lived in groups of about 15 to 20 people as hunter gatherers. No one lived alone; they lived in the group and visited every day. Medical studies on people of all ages prove we need human contact, we need touch to live. Now we push people away. Are we really so civilized?
Virginia Towne, a member of The Olympian’s Diversity Panel, retired from the University of Washington as a computer programmer. Towne, who has personal experience with disabilities, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.