Hundreds of elderly living in squalor, Age Concern survey finds

A retired public health medicine specialist says there could be hundreds of people living in severe squalor across the country.

It comes as a preliminary survey of Age Concern and territorial authorities suggest from their work that many of their clients live in these circumstances.

Thirteen out of 31 Age Concern organisations (42 percent) completed the survey - and nearly all (92 percent) of those surveyed said they had been involved with clients with severe domestic squalor in the past 12 months.

Of 15 out of 67 territorial authorities (22 percent) surveyed, nearly all (93 percent) said they were involved with people living in severe domestic squalor.

Dr Jonathan Jarman, who led the research, said the average age for those living in these conditions was 65 years old, those figures also included some who were older.

In one part of the country, which Jarman wouldn't reveal, two agencies had a total of 46 clients living in severe domestic squalor, he said.

Jarman defined these conditions as infested by vermin, cluttered in rubbish, with decomposing food and stench.

"We're talking quite extreme conditions, it's not just a messy house, this is something that most people would say was so so dirty and messy and unhygienic that it wasn't fit for human occupation," Jarman said.

Eighteen people living in severe domestic squalor referred to the Public Health Service in Taranaki between 2014 and 2016 had a median age of 65 years with the youngest person being 4 years old and the oldest 97 years old.

Several triggers could contributed to someone living in severe squalor, which often included mental health issues, but they were not severe enough to require compulsory treatment, he said.

"There might be a stroke, or there might be worsening arthritis, or the husband or wife might have died and the person's by themselves, they can be psychiatric conditions, or they can be really nothing you can put your finger on."

Living in these conditions is also damaging to a person's health.

"They [those elderly] are often frequent fliers for the health service, so they're in and out of hospital for a whole variety of reasons. If they have a wound that doesn't heal well, they have medical conditions which are not looked after well, there's a personal risk of a fire. The conditions are so bad in the home that carers refuse to go in because of health and safety," Jarman said.

"They're by themselves, they could actually die at home and no one would discover them for a couple of weeks. So that's called a lonely death."

Australian research indicated the number of people living in severe domestic squalor in New Zealand could be up to 2000 homes in the country, he said.

"Agencies such as Age Concerns and territorial authorities are soldiering away on it by themselves and clocking up lot of staff time, when it would be so much easier if we could have a multi-agency approach throughout New Zealand with some expertise, and then we can start using international best practice."