My dad called the other night to let me know that his oldest brother, an uncle I have not seen in several years, was taken by ambulance to the hospital. According to my dad, his oxygen levels are at 72% when resting and drop even lower when he gets up or tries to move or walk. They drained 1.5 liters of fluid off his lungs yet… they say he doesn’t have pneumonia, cirrhosis, kidney issues, heart issues, a blood clot or another discernible reason for the issues.
After the traditional and expected “I’m so sorry” and “Is there anything I can do” responses, I asked my dad if there was any family history of such events or if he had any suspicions about the cause.
My dad was silent for a minute before telling me he had asked the doctor if my uncle’s illness could be related to a small rodent problem he was experiencing. The doctor dismissed it as being unlikely. However, the way he delivered this information made me wonder so, I asked a follow up question.
“What kind of small rodent problem?”
My dad proceeded to explain that when my uncle had stopped farming, the price of corn had been low. He decided to winter it in the grain bins and sell it in the spring. But… he never did and the corn sat untouched.
And then, the rats came.
He said my uncle put out poison but instead of working the way he had intended, the poison was ingested by his horde of barn cats, leaving the rats unchecked.
Before long, they moved into his house and later into his car.
My dad and his siblings had been taking turns visiting him, bringing him food, helping him with basic housekeeping responsibilities. The scattered droppings behind the dishes each week gave his secret away but they just cleaned up it since my uncle never talked about it much.
When the scattered droppings turned into piles of droppings – even with weekly cleanings – my dad and his siblings started setting traps. When rats began to make an appearance and scattered across the floor on a regular basis during their visits, my dad’s sister walked out and refused to step foot in the house again.
Apparently, that was more than three years ago. This is just the first time it has been mentioned to me.
When questioned further, my dad admitted that at this point, rats freely roam the house oblivious to human presence. He told me that my uncle’s stove is unusable as the rats have chewed all the insulation from it and have nests in the oven. They have also destroyed insulation in the walls of the house, chewed on cupboard doors, eaten through the sofa and shredded my uncle’s bed sheets and a few blankets. Apparently, they crawl on him while he sleeps and the whole house reeks with rat urine and feces.
According to my dad, my uncle says it doesn’t bother him that much. He doesn’t have a use for a lot of the stuff that was ruined and, if he takes out his hearing aids, he doesn’t even hear them.
Dad and his younger brother have been trying to get him to move out of the house into senior living but he is stubborn and refuses. So, they simply continue to take turns visiting him to bring him food, empty the traps and clean the best they can.
My dad said that they have not talked with his doctor or any other official about the conditions of the house because they don’t want to embarrass their big brother or cause trouble.
This is not an uncle I am close to but… he is a human being!
No one deserves to live like this. No one.
I encouraged my dad to be honest with my uncle’s doctors, to let them know the condition of the house and the extent of the rat problem. He is a vet. Between VA programs and social services, there has to be other people who can help convince him to take care of himself, to accept some help.
But my dad, relieved to not be carrying the secret any more, simply sighed and said, “My brother bought that house for my mom and dad when he left the navy. He has lived there his whole life and wants to die there. He doesn’t want to move anywhere else. We’ve taken him around to look and he is pretty adamant about it. He’s my big brother! I don’t want to make him upset or cause problems! What else am I supposed to do?”
Understanding that the Encephalitis my dad had in 2005 has left huge scarring of his brain tissue, I decided not to argue and to simply agree. My dad’s last neurological check indicated 92% of his left temporal lobe is gone as is 30% of his right temporal lobe. The rest of his brain is fine. This means he has all of his personality and if you met him on the street, you’d have no idea. However, my stoic, German father is now emotional and ‘huggy.’ He also cannot do math, write his own name, learn new card games etc. It is not fair to expect him to do the logically ‘right’ thing. It is somewhat miraculous – when you think about it – that he is able to help at all. Brains are funny and wondrous things.
My uncle needed some sort of intervention and he doesn’t have anyone in his life who – for various reasons – could do it. So, I did it. I called the Department of Public Health that serves his town. I reported the conditions of his house and asked what could be done.
Unfortunately, they told me that because his home is in a rural area, it is not subject to nuisance laws and, because there are no small children they cannot intervene or order a clean-up. He may qualify as a vulnerable adult but because he is neglecting himself and is not being abused by someone else, they may not be able to intervene. I am disappointed but I understand.
So, I will do my best to support my dad and his younger brother in trying to convince him to voluntarily clean-up and move. I can be there to help deal with the aftermath when he passes away or does decide to move.
What in the world will that house look like a year from now? Or five years from now? Ten years from now? I can’t even fathom… Will it be our – the family’s – responsibility to clean this up or has he willed it to someone else?
This is unfortunate but… as I understand it, not an unusual experience with an older family member who lives alone.
I was having coffee with long-time friends and shared this story. We do this, share things that have happened in our lives. It’s what friends do.
But… my friends did not commiserate. Instead, they responded to my concern about my uncle in a very different way.
“I can NOT believe you reported your uncle. You completed violated his property rights!”
“Of course! Call the government to fix it. Everyone and their uncle – literally in this case – feels entitled! Those are my tax dollars, honey!”
“Exactly. If he wants to live in a house infested with rats, who are you to judge him?”
“He is rural! He isn’t hurting anyone by living like this and you and your family just decide he is the drama of the month and try to take over? Un-believable!”
“If you don’t like how he chooses to live, just don’t go over there.”
“When I get older don’t come and bring me meals! I don’t need your judgment and harassment.”
I acknowledge that I have not been close with him over the years. There are reasons for that. But… he is still my uncle. He is still a human being.
There is still right and wrong.
Why is it wrong, judgmental and offensive to be concerned about someone’s health and safety, their well-being?
When did compassion become political?
Who are these women I had coffee with?
What happened to my long-time friends?