Who cares?

This morning, unannounced as usual, a plumber arrived to install a new wash basin in the bathroom. As it was the very same plumber who broke the old one, I greeted his arrival with an emotion that fell short of enthusiasm. After labouring away for some time he announced that the condition of the wall was too bad to allow him to affix the basin and that the wall would have to be plastered first. My reaction one was of resignation as I have got used to the idea that what was supposed to have been a renovation completed to a 5-week schedule is now going to turn into an indefinitely long process of patching, repairing and making good. Will it ever end?

Shortly after the plumber arrived, I had another visit, this one previously arranged. As council officers will need to access Silas’ flat many times in the months to come, I was asked if I would lend them a key to the front door so that they could have a copy made. I readily agreed and the visit was to pick up the key. When the officer returned the key, I asked her some questions about Silas and the conversation ran on to other matters so I invited her in and we spent an enjoyable half-hour chatting about many things until she was called away.

Unsurprisingly, I have thought a lot about Silas since the discovery of his death on Friday. The council officer was able to enlighten me on certain details but much remains unknown. For example, I was right to guess that the buckets of water found in his flat were there because he was attempting to manage leaks from pipes above his flat. He was so opposed to anyone entering his flat that he did not report the problem.

The last time third parties managed to gain access was when a gas safety check was arranged. This is a legal requirement and the council was thus entitled to enter upon the premises in order to carry it out. No actual check was performed as no gas appliances were in use. Nest boxes for pigeons were seen in the back room, which was probably why Silas tried to keep people out as he had already been warned about feeding pigeons in the property. However, there were no pigeons in the flat on Friday.

According to the officer, Silas may have died as a result of malnutrition because he was “stick thin” and “in a state”. She was trying to get something done about his condition at the time when nature took a hand and applied its own solution.

Such cases do present a dilemma. If a person who is compos mentis decides to neglect himself, do the authorities have any right to interfere? On the face of it, no, because that would run contrary to our well established right to freedom and autonomy. But what if the person is not compos mentis and the suspicion is that the neglect is a consequence of incompetence rather than an act of will? In what conditions and at what point do the authorities have a right, or even a duty, to intervene?

Silas caused no harm to others and I cannot say he caused us any distress despite living directly above us. The only person who came to any harm was Silas himself. The heart says that “we” (meaning the society to which we all belong) ought to do something. But what? The head says that interference in the lives of others is dangerous and places us on the slippery slope that leads to the sort of fascist state that controls every aspect of citizens’ lives and leaves them without any freedom. We do not have to look far for examples.

The council officer readily confessed her uncertainty and far from blaming her for this I felt that such confusion was both necessary and good. It means that we have to agonize over every case and try to tailor a solution that is the best available for the person concerned. If we see it merely as a question of applying fixed rules to fixed situations then we end up treating people as objects and denying them their humanity. Cynicism is the ever present danger.

What is so tragic is though this country apparently has sufficient wealth to host the Olympic Games and to engage in military adventures overseas, it starves local authorities of the money they need to look after citizens – the sick, the elderly, the abandoned – who need such help. Charity, so the saying runs, begins at home. I wish our successive governments would remember this more often.

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About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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2 Responses to Who cares?

  1. athinkingman says:

    I fully concur with your desire to err on the side of caution in the issue of intervention and to support those who are faced with the unenviable task of making the difficult ‘judgement calls’.

    One thing that struck me though was the issue of impact on others. I suppose if I were to begin to think about whether intervention was justified or not, that issue would form part of an argument. If his neglect was causing others to suffer (the failure to adequately address the issue of the water coming from above which did impact you and could have been worse, and possible further problems caused by pigeons) then is an argument to be made for proportionate action to at least address any impact on others, if not on him. It is difficult (if not impossible) for recluses to live in society as they invariably have some impact on others.

    Just a thought …

  2. SilverTiger says:

    Yes, I agree that causing problems for other people should certainly be one of the factors used to decide whether it is legitimate to intervene. Even there, however, I think that the gravity of the problem should be carefully weighed.

    For example, there used to be the an elderly woman in Kentish Town who would accost men in the street. She accosted me many times. She would ask “Are you his Lordship?” and perhaps add “I see the Lord daily”. The story was that she had been to a religious rally and had taken literally the injunction to “Seek the Lord daily”. Her accosting of men was a minor inconvenience and not serious enough in my opinion to cause her to be institutionalized though, taken with other things, it might add weight to such a decision.

    In the case of Silas, it turns out that he was “managing” the water coming into his flat by catching it in buckets. It was only with his death that the buckets overflowed and caused a problem for us. I can easily imagine circumstances where a person’s death would cause trouble for others without this being regarded as a fault on their part.

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