Friday, March 2, 2012

Mourning the Crazy Lady?

So every neighborhood has one. A house. No. THE house. The one the kids cross the street to avoid. The one nobody has the nerve to go to the door. The one targeted for dares. People talk. Not just kids, but grown ups.

Sometimes it is rumored to be haunted. But more often it is because of somebody who lives there.

You know the ones.

The shell-shocked vet.
The mad scientist.
The witch.
The child molester.

Heck, one of my best friends growing up boasted a street with both a child molester AND a vet that practiced voodoo magic... or so the tales we whispered said. Neither case confirmed, but one trip to the voodoo vets door (on a Halloween dare) achieved nothing but a miniature Hersheys.

But then neither of these HOUSES was so dilapidated that there was external evidence that say, a grown-up might join the worry. I mean there were houses like that... but those houses tended to sit quietly... most of the time. Those houses, I suspect, often contained shut-ins. People too poor or sickly to maintain the place. People with no family to help them out. Crazy people.

In movies these people tend to be kind and misunderstood. Sandlot is a great movie with this at its core.

My street has such a house.
When we bought eleven years ago it looked over grown. Badly. But because of the overgrowth it was hard to see that the siding badly needed painting, and brick being brick, more of it appeared sturdy, than horrible. And it's down the street far enough that the numbers have gotten into the 1600s... (ours is in the 1400s), so we didn't think much of it.

Our house gave me my first shot of 'spooky' that first summer we lived here. There was a young couple living next door. Nice people with rhyming names. They had kids, and any of you who has ever moved with small kids will remember that OTHER families with kids are like magnets. Those are the people you meet first—looking for playmates, references, resources, friendship...

So we used to visit with this family often. There is a field at the end of the block we played in sometimes, and heck, their house was right on the way, so why not?

And they (he) told us the tale of the Crazy Lady. The neglected house, though we'd never seen anybody in it, held an old woman and a VERY old woman. Neither of whom left much. The old woman suffered from paranoia and delusions, and had just come over to our friends' house and dug up a string of shiplights that had lined their driveway. She insisted they were using them to spy on her.


Not long after this, we began to see some sitings of this woman. She would yell at us from her porch to stop harassing her. Harass, defined here as walking on the sidewalk past her house. We began to use the other side of the street.

And then she disappeared for a while...

In 2004 I volunteered for MoveOn dot Org for a get out the vote campaign. Ann Arbor being what it is, they wanted as many people as possible to vote, and I was down with it. We were offering rides to people who might have trouble getting to the polls.

This was a nice experience some of the time. I was canvassing my own neighborhood and met some of my neighbors, one of which was the woman who lived on the OTHER side of the Crazy Lady. This woman and I didn't agree on the presidential vote, but she pointed out to me she was a by-the-person voter—she WOULD be voting to re-elect the democratic mayor. Because HE was the one who had finally helped with the Crazy Lady. She'd called social services. She'd called the police. Nobody would help. FINALLY, she contacted the mayor and he got the right people there.

The Crazy Lady had been threatening her. What's more, she seemed to be a danger to herself. A clean-up crew came and cleaned up the most extreme case of hoarding I think I will ever see. It took one of those HUGE bins brought to her driveway.

I learned that over the years cash had been sent to help those ladies and they'd wrapped it in newspaper and stacked it in the corners. This was discovered partway through cleaning, but they suspect they threw away thousands that they thought was just garbage. I heard rumors of dead cats, but I have no clue if that's true. That dumpster, though, was FULL of trash.

After that someone came to check regularly. The old old lady died, leaving just the paranoid schizophrenic, living alone. Somewhere in there I had my only conversation with the woman. She strayed up the street and I was worried for her safety. I stopped her and asked if I could help her. I managed to get her to head back home and think it was her neighbor I asked to call the social service person.

Since then, there have been meal deliveries and someone checking. A trustee? But whoever was doing the arranging dropped the ball somewhere last fall. I don't know how, but these are the events as I understand them (and as they were learned by anyone I know)

Two weeks ago the mailman knocked and asked the neighbor if she'd seen the woman, as she'd stopped taking in her mail. No. Not for quite a while.

Apparently if it has been a while, the postal service notifies the police.
So the police came Wednesday and tried to knock.
Then they came and asked my exercise buddy if she had anything to break into a house.

We've been joking about this. Who can ask that question? Only a police officer.
I told her she should have said, “just a second while I fetch my burglary kit.'

But they borrowed some tools and apparently succeeded in breaking in.

The woman was dead in her bathroom.
Had apparently BEEN dead in her bathroom for at least a month.

We learned the meal company had not delivered since October. OCTOBER? How did her trustee not notice there were no meal bills? But it was the second food company. It had been a Schwann truck until the woman assaulted the delivery driver. So maybe he thought something like that had happened (but wouldn't he check?)

This is the stuff nightmares are made of.

And it leaves such mixed emotions. I know her immediate neighbors have a lot of relief, and who can blame them? She seriously threatened them more than once. But I just am SO SAD. I am very sad for her death alone and unnoticed. But more than that, I am sad at her life alone and uncared for.

What have we come to that somebody can so badly fall through the cracks? There was a time of insane asylums and much of it was awful, but there are people who really need to be institutionalized. Had this woman had daily monitoring of her medication and attention to her care, I really believe her life might not have been so tragic.


Ciara said...

Our neighborhood is trying to establish a safe program for the elderly. Someone died a few weeks ago and no one knew. He was found after a few days. It was sad. Hording is just gross. I wouldn't be able to even walk in that room.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Such a shame she didn't have any family (or nearby family...or family that cared) that could have helped her and loved her. Very sad.

Krista McLaughlin said...

That is very sad. Such a poor situation for that woman and that no one was really helping her and she was gone and no one noticed.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Why hadn't the trustee set her up someplace else where she would get round the clock care? That whole situation never should've happened that way.

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

That will be me someday. Dead in the bathroom with no one that knows any different for months. It's cause I live alone and no one cares. I'm surrounded on all sides with religious people so I don't feel like making friends as they all think the earth is 9000 years old and base everything in their lives around their beliefs. About all i can say is hello and goodbye without getting in an argument. So yeah...this house will be me someday.

Johanna Garth said...

Oh, that is so, so sad. It makes me feel like making more of an effort to stop by and bring cookies to the older people who live alone in our neighborhood.

Hart Johnson said...

Ciara-that neighborhood program is a great idea. And my husband is actually REALLY good about checking on the older people at our end of the block, but when a person is paranoid and physically abusive, it is a little different.

Elizabeth--very sad. I used to have a mentor with no children who was an only child and she would joke about this--no family eventually. She'd say 'oh no. I forgot to have children.' but really, those connections matter a lot.

Krista-yeah--a big fear for many, I think. I'm not sure if she was aware enough to know.

Alex-I have no idea. She was institutionalized for a few months in there. I think it is really hard to hold somebody who doesn't want to be there.

Michael-oh, don't say that! I mean I get why you don't want to get close to neighbors who are so different, but I know some great people in SLC--make a point of spending time with people regularly so they'll know.

Johanna-it's a great idea. Helping out now and then is nice, too.

Helena said...

What a terribly sad story. This woman was obviously suffering from dementia and should not have been living on her own. Adult social services should have intervened long ago and set her up in a good (but there are some bad ones) nursing home.

When I was a student I worked two summers in two different nursing homes and saw how many of the elderly residents needed to be there -- locked in so that they wouldn't wander off, fed and clothed, taken care of, and given medical supervision by nurses.

How these tragedies happen every day in our society does not speak well of our society.

Hart Johnson said...

I really agree. I think we should be ashamed of what we allow to happen to those least capable. Damn Puritan values and the 'we get what we deserve' mentality.

erica and christy said...

Someone (probably more than one someones) did worse than drop the ball here. It's sad and horrible.

But the beginning made me think of a children's picture book. "Once there was an old house. Inside the old house was an old woman and a VERY old woman." :)

Al said...

Unfortunately the kind of thing happens all the time.
Even with the best systems if someone doesn't do their job it all falls down and the disadvantaged pay,

Jan Morrison said...

I have a solution. It is elegant in its simplicity and I'm happy that I thought of it. Each person that deems themselves able in mind and body - or able enough - finds one other person who isn't. They see that person one day a week for an hour or two. That's it. One person to one person. I see my 91 year old once a week. He has kids but they aren't exactly present for various reasons. I chat to him and make sure he doesn't look or sound radically worse than the last time I saw him. I encourage him to do things he might not do otherwise - call the doc, or connect with an old friend. In short - I make myself responsible for his well-being. One person to one person. Everyone knows one person who could use this - a single older person, a younger ill person, a struggling mum with no kin. And everyone has an hour or two a week. Everyone. If I do, even God does.
Pass it on. One Person to One Person

Hart Johnson said...

Erica-that IS a nice children's story start! Probably leave out the crazy part...

Al-Yeah, I will be curious to see if we learn how this happened. But a system really needs more safety checks, doesn't it?

Jan, that is a LOVELY idea! I think in this case, it would have been hard--her history of assault and all, but in MOST cases, that would really solve it!

Oregon Gifts of Comfort and Joy said...

Hart, you did a wonderful job on this sad, sad story.

I can think of three such houses right off the bat.

I certainly don't know why things turn out as they do. I have a relative who suffers from the same thing as this woman did, and often wonder about available resources. Plus, those afflicted are under no obligation to take their meds. Some get great ideas about sleeping under the bridge because there is a restraining order against them at home and they don't want to mind the rules of the local mission. Off to the state hospital occasionally and even when released the hospital doesn't seem to know that he is gone, as they keep on sending update letters about his progress. Wow, I'm making my own post here!

Thanks for bringing up and writing about this important topic.

Hart Johnson said...

Kathy, I think you've nailed the trouble. It is such a difficult wire to balance on, that line between respecting peoples autonomy and right to set their own direction, versus taking CARE of them. If we fall one way, we take away rights of some who don't deserve it. If we fall the other way, people fall through the cracks (which is how things currently are.) I'd probably fall the other direction, were it up to me, but I do understand what a precarious position that is. and how dangerous it could be if taken even a little too far.

Cherie Reich said...

Aww! That's so sad. I can definitely see why you would have the conflicting emotions. Poor woman.

JCS said...

Unfortunately, sometimes people do everything they can to help someone like that but when the social services people stop providing services and medication for whatever reason, there's nothing a "good neighbor" can do. This woman was abusive, attacked people and was threatening. Sometimes it's not worth putting yourself in harm and all you can do is call the police.
If someone is elderly, alone and not battling serious mental illness then of course we should all step up for them but it's never okay to put yourself in harms way.

Hold my hand: a social worker's blog said...

How unfortunate. I wonder if there was no way to deem this lady incompetent, and that's why they couldn't remove her from her home to a safe place. The trustee could have done more. I feel that Social Services should have been more aggressive. I have no doubt that the lady had some mental illness, a diagnosis to qualify her to be placed in a nursing home, for instance.

Great post.


Ellie Garratt said...

This is sadly so often the case - an elderly neighbour dying alone and unnoticed. During a recent spell of extremely low temperatures I posted on facebook reminding people to check on elderly neighbours/relatives. I also asked them to share my message. No one did. No one commented either.

Hart Johnson said...

Cherie-definitely conflicting emotions. Her death was heartbreaking, but I'm not sure how much more so than her life.

Jackie-I've tried in comments to get that across but you are SO RIGHT. Yes, it would be ideal to be able to help, but not worth putting yourself in harms way. She wasn't rational.

Doris-she'd been committed a few times and had a diagnosis, but I have no clue what the criteria are to hold someone permanently. Maybe she was able to 'pass' on her meds, and then at home, goes off them again. I suspect that is the flow of it.

Ellie-such a good point. I'm sorry no one followed through, because it's SO important. Maybe Facebook is the stronger place for messages like that, as the feed flow reaches a lot more?

Christine Murray said...

As a foster carer you hear about a lot of cases like this. Maybe not as extreme, but often kids that go into care have mental illness that they have masked with addictions and odd behaviour. By the time the Irish authorities step in the kids have already witnessed a horrific amount, and the parents may be so far down the road that they are unable to recover. The sad thing is, with the right supports put in early enough these cases would have happier endings.

I can't speak for America, but in Ireland we let down a lot of the our most vulnerable citizens.

Sarah Ahiers said...

ugh that's just horrible. We had an issue like that up here a few months ago. I heard about it because there was an issue with a cat and it's placement/euthanasia.
We have a witch house on our street. It's really overgrown and has crazy plants and landscaping, which is whatever. But we used to walk our dogs by her house and every days she'd sit on the sidewalk across the street from her house and down about a block. She'd always wear all black and she'd always have a black dog with her. The weird thing is, it was always a different black dog. I have no clue what what was about, but i seriously doubt the lady owned 8 black dogs so where was she getting these dogs from? And where were the other ones?
Weird. We don't walk past her house any more.