Claude Westfall, 87, has been living alone in his Orono home since the death of his wife, Rosemae, in 2012. Although he has grown children and other family in the general area, Westfall takes pride in not having to ask them for help.
“I don’t want to impose a hardship on anyone,” he said. “My kids have their own lives to live.”
Like many Mainers, Westfall recently followed the reported story of Lucie McNulty, a reclusive woman who died alone of natural causes more than two years before her body was discovered earlier this month inside her Wells home.
“It was sad,” he said. “It would be very difficult on my kids if something like that happened [to me].”
He appreciates knowing he won’t suffer a similar fate should he become ill or injured or if he were to die suddenly in his home.
Each morning, the retired University of Maine professor gets a quick phone call from the Orono Police Department, checking in to make sure he’s OK. The department’s free Good Morning program, started about 10 years ago, reaches about two dozen seniors in the town. Participants span the socio-economic spectrum. Several other municipalities in Maine have similar programs, though the number is not officially tracked.
Blessed with a clear mind, a sociable spirit and and plenty of energy, Westfall keeps his ranch-style home tidy and does his own cooking and cleaning. He rakes the snow off his roof and clears his own walkways.
An avid birder, photographer and fly fisherman, he is leading the effort to establish the Maine Atlantic Salmon Museum in Brewer. He is active with his church, walks regularly at the Bangor Mall and takes his main meal most days with a group of peers at the Orono Senior Center.
“I know I’m lucky,” Westfall said.
There are many Mainers who are more vulnerable than he is — poorer, older, sicker, lonelier, more isolated. But the Good Morning service is an important part of his self-care, helping to ensure he stays safe in his home and gets help promptly if he needs it.
Lucie McNulty: a study in social isolation
Westfall is lucky in many regards, perhaps none more important than his gregarious nature and his willingness to accept support.
By contrast, McNulty, who would be 69 now, had been living on her quiet, dead-end street since about 2000, becoming more and more reclusive over time. She rarely left her home or interacted with her neighbors. She kept her blinds pulled and didn’t come to the door when people knocked. After a while, no one had seen her for so long, neighbors thought she might have moved away.
On a few occasions, responding to concerned callers, officers from the Wells Police Department had dropped by for welfare checks. Not seeing overt signs of trouble, they didn’t break into McNulty’s house when no one answered. But finally, on Jan. 12, as unpaid property taxes triggered foreclosure proceedings, police forced open the door and found McNulty’s body on the floor inside. The state medical examiner’s office determined she had died of ischemic cardiovascular disease as much as 2½ years earlier.
The incident made the national news and sparked widespread criticism and speculation. Wells police Chief Jo-Ann Putnam said she has received numerous calls, letters and emails, demanding to know how such a thing could have occurred in the small town of about 10,000 residents.
“We’ve talked about it and discussed what happened,” she said. “We’ve gone back and talked with the officers who made the earlier welfare checks, wondering if we missed something. I don’t think so.”
The Wells Police Department offers a Good Morning program, similar to Orono’s, that serves about 10 seniors.
“We have written permission and a key to get into [participants’] houses,” Putnam said. McNulty, however, wasn’t a participant in the Good Morning program.
On the other hand, welfare checks, such as the first few visits to McNulty’s mobile home, typically include a knock on the door, a look in the windows and a look around for any indications of illegal activity or violence. It’s rare for police to force their way into a home, Putnam said.
Choosing solitude: ‘It is not a crime’
It happens “fairly often” that police go to a private home for a welfare check and find the person has died, according to Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety. But in the 27 years he has served in his position, he said, “I can’t think of a single case” like McNulty’s shocking, long-undiscovered death.
But McNulty’s life circumstances, McCausland said, are far from unusual.
“There are many cases where a person chooses to live a solitary life, by design or for other reasons,” he said. “It is not the fault of the police or of any neighbor. It is sad sometimes, but it is not a crime to choose that life.”
The choice to live in isolation, whether in rural or urban settings, is driven by many factors, according to Dr. Clifford Singer, a Bangor psychiatrist who specializes in geriatric mental health. Life circumstances such as divorce or widowhood, the absence of nearby family members, poverty and lack of transportation can contribute to social isolation, he said.
In addition, conditions such as chronic pain, low energy and depression can make it hard to summon the will to socialize, while age-related problems such as memory loss, poor hearing and urinary incontinence may cause embarrassment and fear of social settings.
Even when living conditions are far from ideal, Singer said, a solitary lifestyle is not necessarily a sign of mental illness or incompetence. Overall, he said, individuals have the right to choose how to live. Even public agencies such as Adult Protective Services cannot legally force an individual to accept assistance or to relocate against their will, except in the most egregious situations.
Often, he said, the most effective call can be to the nearest Agency on Aging, which may be able to establish communication and persuade a reclusive individual to accept basic services such as prepared meals, hygiene assistance, pet food or transportation.
Life on the fringes
At the Eastern Area Agency on Aging in Bangor, executive director Noelle Merrill said the number of elders living on the fringes of safety is rising with changes in our culture, including, for example, changes in the well-known Meals on Wheels program.
“Years ago, we had enough money to deliver a hot meal to your house five days a week,” she said.
That meant someone waited at the door until the resident answered. There was an exchange of pleasantries and the opportunity to be sure the resident was safe and functional. Now, she said, budget constraints mean a batch of frozen meals gets dropped off once a week, with many Mainers on a waiting list for the service.
The Area Agencies on Aging offer many other services to support elders in their homes, Merrill said, and community-based services such as the Good Morning programs in Orono and Wells can also be effective at keeping elders connected to safety. Wearable pendants and bracelets, such as those provided through the Lifeline program, have saved many lives, though they aren’t inexpensive.
“But people don’t realize the link,” she said. “Too many Mainers think that if they ask for help or accept help, someone’s going to call the authorities, take them out of their homes and stick them in a facility.”
The challenge to agencies like hers, as well as to state programs, municipalities and individual community members, Merrill said, is reaching the most reclusive individuals who, like McNulty, reject social norms and fall right through the public safety net.
In Orono, the Good Morning program works well to keep older residents safe in their homes, according to police Capt. Scott Scripture.
“We have found a few people who have passed away at home,” he said, “or who have fallen or who are sick.”
But more, often, he said, the Good Morning callers get an all-clear and a thank you from program participants who are up and about in the morning. Sometimes, they are asked for help with small tasks, such as changing a lightbulb or a hearing aid battery, and they’re happy to oblige if they’re not busy with weightier problems. One officer recently brought a newspaper and a carton of orange juice to a senior in the program who confided she was coming down with a cold.
Scripture isn’t worried about the “slippery slope” effect of seniors looking to the police for support in day-to-day domestic activities. Orono is a small town, he said, and keeping it safe for all residents is just part of the job description.