Belfast Telegraph

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Dying alone

Forget the fantasy neighbourhoods of Coronation Street and think of John Adams. The pensioner's body was found at home decomposed and crawling with maggots. No one knew he was there. He was 'a wee loner'. So how did it happen? By Chrissie Russell

Sometime over the past three months in Belfast an elderly man died in his home, but the first anyone knew about it was when maggots from his decomposing body came through the ceiling of the flat below.

It's an horrific story but more horrifying is the fact that it is not entirely unique.

John Adams' body was discovered on July 23. It's thought he may have passed away up to three months earlier. He had lived in his Housing Executive flat in Ravensdale Crescent in the east of the city since 1998 - almost 10 years in the same area. But despite speaking to neighbours and local business owners, we still know very little about him and, at the time of writing, Mr Adams' body is still lying, unclaimed, in the public mortuary.

"It's not a nice way to go," says one neighbour who didn't wish to be named. "I've lived here for 16 years but I was away when it happened. I know everyone around here but, to be honest, we don't really bother much with each other. The man that died was a wee, plump fella but I hardly ever saw him - his front door was round the other side of the house. I remember when the Housing Executive was doing everyone's windows a few years back he didn't want his done. And sometimes on Friday mornings I'd see him waiting at the bus stop heading into town. Maybe he was going to the market ... I don't know."

Further along the road it's the same story. "People said to me, 'Marie, you'll know him, he used to wear a leather hat,' but I just can't place him at all," says Marie Grattan, who has lived in the area for seven years. "I know most of my neighbours to say 'Hi' to but I couldn't tell you anything about him. To be honest I didn't even know the house he lived in was divided into two flats."

Another neighbour, Erskine Jackson echoes the same sentiment. "I wouldn't have recognised him, I'm not even sure what age he was. His Venetian blinds were never open and you wouldn't often have seen a light on in the place. He was probably just a wee loner."

In the convenience store around the corner where Mr Adams would have bought his groceries and in the post office attached to the shop, faces are also blank. Customers have been talking about the death but few are able to bring any light to who the pensioner was and why his death remained undetected for so long.

"I know a lot of people who come into the shop, especially elderly customers," says Gary Massey, who has run the post office on the Castlereagh Road for the past five years. "But I've no idea who he was and no one else knows him either." He adds: "It's not that the community here is particularly tight but people usually know other people in the area, who they are and what they do, but no one seems to know anything about him - none of the customers or the girls in the shop."

Only in the local book-keepers was Mr Adams a familiar customer, coming in every morning to place a bet and watch the race results come up on the television screen. "He always sat in the same seat in the corner, by the window every morning and always wore a big, leather hat," says Jim, the manager. "For about the last year or so he would come in here every day with his messages, maybe place a bet and sit and watch the results come in. I don't remember anyone ever talking to him and I didn't know him. I just handed over the money and that was it. He was just a lonely wee man."


Michael Copeland, a UUP Alderman for Castlereagh Borough Council, visited the area following Mr Adams' death and says he is concerned about pensioners living in similarly isolated situations. "There is a level of society that ordinary society doesn't see," he says. "I've heard tales of woe and horror regarding the living conditions of some elderly people in east Belfast and while what happened in this case would not be regular, it is not uncommon either. Only six months ago a man in his 60s was found half eaten by rats in his home. He was suffering from cancer and still alive but hadn't been going to receive treatment - no one had been to check on him. The fact is that there has been a breakdown in society where often each statutory body is able to tick the right box for a person but no one looks at the whole picture. Old people are the ones most vulnerable in this system. "

But, in the absence of any known family or friends, whose responsibility was it to make sure Mr Adams was alive and well? Social Services provide care for many vulnerable groups, but only if an individual has been referred to them as needing assistance.

"We have to know about who needs help," explains a Social Services spokesperson. "No one will ever be turned away and everyone referred will be assessed. The help is there but people need to ask for it." People can refer themselves as needing assistance or it can be done by a family member, GP or member of the clergy. Every individual case is assessed and care can be provided in whatever form it is necessary. "But we can't force people to take the service," adds the spokesperson.

"And people have to accept that they need help and have to be happy to have someone coming into their house. The help is there but people need to ask for it. Because not everyone does. It's hard to say how many people could be slipping through the net."

It's a similar tale with the Housing Executive - by not asking for help, Mr Adams was not recognised as someone needing it. He had been living in his house since 1998 but had not contacted the Housing Executive since 2004. " This wouldn't be deemed unusual," says Richard Williamson, east Belfast district manager for the Housing Executive. "It's mainly only if a tenant has a problem that they will contact the office. The majority of services carried out, such as collection of rent and housing benefit, do not require direct contact." As a pensioner, Mr Adams presented a low risk in terms of benefit fraud so there was no need to check up on him and as Ravensdale Crescent is a quiet cul-de-sac of only around 15 or so semi-detached houses, it doesn't throw up regular problems for the Executive - they had no reason to be calling out to check on the area.

In Ravensdale Crescent, the windows of Mr Adams' upper story flat still lie open, the flat below for the meantime uninhabitable due to the proliferation of maggots and bluebottles.

But otherwise life goes on.

Mr Adams' possessions will be held by the Housing Executive and, if unclaimed after six months, destroyed. If no family come forward, his body will most likely be buried in Roselawn or one of the other two large council cemeteries in the city.

In 2006-07 six people were buried in pauper's funerals by Belfast City Council (although the cost of one funeral was later reimbursed when money was found in the deceased's house). The services cost £700 with burials four to a plot - although bodies are often kept for an indefinite amount of time in the public mortuary in the hope that a family member will turn up.

Financially, the cost of burying Belfast's unclaimed dead is minimal, only a little over £11,000 in the past three years, but surely as a society we are the poorer that it happens at all? Because, in the humdrum of everyday life how many of us can really say it would have been any different if Mr Adams had been our neighbour?

It's easy to jump on a moral high horse and say someone - be it a family member, neighbour - Housing Executive or Social Services, someone should have noticed that this old man hadn't been seen for a while. But if, for a few weeks, you didn't see the elderly man who lived round the corner, what would you do? Knock on the door? Decide he was on holiday or moved away? Or would you decide it was nothing to do with you? Would you even know that an elderly man lived round the corner?

The sad fact is that today's society isn't the cosy vision of chats over fences and street parties portrayed in television ideals like Coronation Street or Neighbours. TVs, video games and the internet along with increased and improved local amenities are all part and parcel of modern living but they've also signalled the end of leaving the house to go and see what's happening next door as a means of entertainment.

The word 'community' gets bandied about a lot but, in reality, true communities - where people meet in the street for a chat and look out for each other - are rapidly disappearing and the people that are most vulnerable to this change, the elderly, are becoming invisible.

Mr Adams' pension was paid direct into his account, no milk was delivered to pile up at the door, no paper boy called and the local postman didn't report anything suspicious about the address. No one was looking out for him and no one missed him. We may never know the full circumstances of why Mr Adams died alone but perhaps knowing that he did will make us think a bit more about our own responsibility in preventing something similar happening again. It's rarely the people most in need of help that shout loudest for it.

Belfast Telegraph


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