Looking out for those lost in the shadows.

15 or so years ago I read a story in the Newark Star Ledger that has always stayed with me. It was about a 68-year old man who lived in Jersey City, New Jersey, who died in his apartment–and whose death went undiscovered for two-and-a half years.

To my surprise, I recently came across an eerily similar story from Oslo, Norway. Since the Norway story is more current, I’ve included an excerpt here:

A human tragedy was unfolding in Oslo on Friday after police reported finding the body of an elderly man who’s believed to have died in his east-side apartment at least two years ago.

Relatives had finally contacted police after saying they hadn’t heard from the man for a long time. Police entered his apartment and found his body.

Neighbours and the board of his building’s homeowners’ association assumed he had moved to a nursing home. One neighbour said that his monthly association fees were paid regularly, his mailbox wasn’t overfilled and there was no odor from his apartment. The electricity to his apartment, though, was cut off in October 2008.

“We don’t know exactly when he died,” said Grete Metlid of the Oslo Police District. “The preliminary estimate is two years ago, but it could have been longer.”

In the original story I read many years ago, the neighbors had much the same reaction to the discovery of the man’s body. “I thought he had moved away” and “Come to think of it, I hadn’t seen him for awhile”. The electricity and phone had been turned off due to nonpayment; the city was suing for overdue taxes.

In that case, the deceased was found by the mailman. He had been dropping mail through a slot in the front door, until one day the bills and junk mail had piled up so high, he could see a three-foot pile through the slot and called the police. Different decade, different country, but the same outcome: elderly man dead for 2 ½ years before anyone notices.

So who was to blame—the old man or the neighbors?

I suppose you could find fault with either the 68-year old man who appears to have cut himself off from friends, neighbors and relatives—or the neighbors, at least some of whom knew an isolated elderly man was in their midst, but did nothing to reach out to him.

Which still leaves the question: what’s the lesson of this sad tale? While the cases mentioned here are extreme, they serve as a holiday season reminder that the lonely and the isolated live among us.

I believe that we all have a sphere of people in our lives who we are responsible for—if not legally, morally and spiritually. They include more than just the loved ones we interact with everyday, but those on the periphery of our lives who are in danger of slipping through the cracks.

Whether it’s the elderly widowed uncle who lives alone or the reclusive neighbor who hides behind shuttered blinds and locked doors, it’s time we took these people back from the shadows. We can do this by simply extending a helping hand or reaching out with a kind word or two. And there’s no better time to start than today.

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