As the impact of the ‘Great War’ is much in people’s minds at the moment, this blog offers some reflections on neighbourly support for older people, originally published (unparagraphed, in tiny font) in 1918.
Lonely dwellers and their neighbours
‘It was stated in the newspapers recently that a woman, 73 years of age, living alone in a house in Gray’s Inn road, fell down stairs one Wednesday evening, and, being unable to move, was not discovered until the following Saturday. On the next day she died in the hospital to which she had been taken. Stories of this kind, or of solitary persons who die and whose bodies are only discovered after some time, are not infrequent, and such cases occur in the country as well as in great cities. Probably, however, they are rarer in rural districts and small towns, where eccentric characters and the poor and lonely are of greater interest to their neighbours than they are in the metropolis. It is difficult, indeed, to suggest any means which would prevent such an occurrence in the crowded area around Holborn, nor can we say that any duty of neighbourliness was neglected by those in her vicinity who went their daily way while an old woman lay at the foot of a staircase in a house which they had no reason for entering. Nor does society, the State, or the local authority appear to be called upon to interfere if persons of mature age , whether poor or not, prefer to live alone rather than in surroundings which would expose them to observation. In the absence of organised intervention it is usually the baker, or the milkman, or the postman, particularly the last in country districts, who reports that he cannot get the accustomed answer at a certain door, when further inquiry shows that a lonely dweller is ill or dead. It might conceivably be made an instruction to postmen to be observant in such matters, and to report the non-delivery of a letter through failure to get a reply to a knock at the door. But lonely dwellers receive few letters. There remain the baker and the milkman, whose services might also be requisitioned in normal times, but even then there are many cases where the customer fetches his own bread from a shop where his abode is not known. It is, indeed, likely that any such system as we have suggested, even if reinforced by the aid of the police, would not only lead to many false alarms, but would break down and be inoperative in a substantial proportion of genuine instances. Cases, therefore, such as that on which we have commented will continue to fill us with pity, but will not be averted unless and until the State undertakes even greater surveillance over the details of our daily lives than it does at present. Do we want that?’
The Lancet, 192(4959), 14 September 1918, 362-363.