Plight of Elderly Overwhelms Welfare Groups (South China Morning Post, 08.05.08, p. 10)

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Apart from Miami, there can be few cities in the world as obsessive about youthful good looks as Sydney. Forget about its tough colonial origins, Sydney today is populated by personal trainers, weight-loss clinics and day spas.
A visitor is quickly seduced by the sight of svelte bodies pounding along the sand at Bondi, and surfers riding the waves at Manly.
Sadly, for Sydney’s elderly, life isn’t quite as carefree. Earlier this year, newspaper readers were transfixed by the story of Jorge Chambe, a 64-year-old migrant who died alone in his state housing flat – he’d been dead at least a year before his body was discovered.
Chambe, a retiree from Ecuador, had no relatives in Australia, and apparently no close friends. His death went unnoticed, despite the concerns of neighbours, local police and the Meals on Wheels agency that distributes food to the elderly.
The story caused particular embarrassment for the New South Wales Housing Department, which is supposed to carry out regular checks on its tenants aged 60 or above. Matt Brown, the housing minister, blamed the department’s oversight on a lack of funds.
“We’ve got 50,000 tenants over 60 years of age,” he explained. “But nothing can really take the place of family, friends or good neighbours looking out for each other.”
The plight of the elderly was starkly illustrated by the release this week of a new study revealing that hundreds across New South Wales live in “severe domestic squalor”.
John Snowdon, a professor of psychological medicine at the University of Sydney, says the numbers are now so great, they are overwhelming government welfare agencies and local authorities.
“Across the state, at least 500 elderly people at any one time need help because they are living in unacceptable conditions,” he said.
Professor Snowdon said many of those living in dire conditions are also suffering from dementia, alcoholic brain damage, schizophrenia or frontal lobe damage. Some had obsessive-compulsive disorders.
The situation is unlikely to improve soon. Recent statistics show that an increasing number of pensioners are refusing to move into retirement villages, even though they are incapable of looking after themselves.
Social worker Kathinka Linahan recalls the scene that greeted her inside the house of an elderly woman in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.
“The house was knee-deep in newspapers, empty medication containers and plastic bags. And because the woman was incontinent, she never made it to the toilet.”
Thanks to modest funding over the past couple of years, the Benevolent Society – working alongside Catholic Healthcare – has been able to help 17 old people return to their own homes, while ensuring regular support from neighbours and welfare agencies.
Despite such efforts, the elderly continue to die alone. Last month, the bodies of a 99-year-old man and his 87-year-old wife were discovered in their Gosford home, north of Sydney. Neighbours became concerned when they hadn’t seen them for a few days. Police say there were no suspicious circumstances, only, presumably, age.

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