Nfld. & Labrador

Living alone can be a risky business. Here's how to help loved ones plan for the worst

A Newfoundland and Labrador woman is sharing her family's story to raise awareness about the risks of living alone and to offer some tips on how to make sure your loved ones or neighbours stay safe.

Seniors particularly vulnerable if they suffer injuries or illness without anyone around to help

Len Butler visits his wife, Marina Butler, last month at the assisted-living facility where they both now reside. (Kelly Anne Butler/Submitted)

The long winter nights may be hard for most of us to bear but, for anyone living alone, they can be worse, especially when you add the worry of what will happen if you get sick or injured.

A Newfoundland and Labrador woman is sharing her family's story to raise awareness about the risks of living alone and to offer some tips on how to make sure your loved ones or neighbours stay safe.

Kelly Anne Butler lives in Corner Brook, but her elderly parents live far away, in Illinois.

In the fall of 2017, her father was discovered on the floor of his home, after suffering a fall four and a half days earlier.

"The whole time, he was trying to inch his body down the hallway so that he could get to a phone," said Butler.

"The doctors said they were amazed that he survived."

A long way from family

The story of how Len and Marina Butler ended up living so far from family is not uncommon, as many children grow up and move away from their parents.

In this case, however, it was the parents who moved away.

Len Butler was an American serviceman at the Ernest Harmon Air Force Base in Stephenville, N.L., who married Marina Bennett from nearby Seal Rocks, now part of the Town of St. George's.

Len Butler was a U.S. serviceman stationed at the Ernest Harmon Air Force Base in Stephenville, N.L., when he met Marina Bennett of Seal Rocks, now part of St. George's. They were married Dec. 31, 1965, in the chapel at Sewart Air Force Base, Tenn. (Kelly Anne Butler/Submitted)

The Butlers and their two children moved all over the United States with the air force, and Kelly Anne Butler said she doesn't recall anywhere really feeling like home, except for Newfoundland, where her family visited in the summers.

Fast-forward from the 1960s to 2017, and the couple had moved back to the home they owned in Illinois. But the elder Butler was living alone, after his wife was admitted to long-term care, suffering from Alzheimer's and vascular dementia.

Kelly Anne Butler typically kept in close contact with her father, but didn't worry if she didn't reach him by phone every day.

Len Butler was retired from the U.S. air force by then, but he still drove his own car and had a circle of friends.

Cause for alarm

So it was that, in November 2017, Butler didn't immediately worry when she couldn't get an answer at her parents' home.

She tried calling for several days without reaching him, before finally leaving one final desperate plea on his answering machine.

"The last message that I left on his voicemail was apologetic but saying, if you don't answer the next time I call, I'm turning into my worrying mother, and I'm going to have to call the police," Butler said.

Kelly Anne Butler says she felt a tremendous amount of guilt after learning that her father had been lying on a floor in his Illinois home for more than four days before she called local police to check on him. (Submitted)

The tipping point for Butler was when she called her mother's long-term care home and found out her father hadn't visited in several days.

That's when she knew something was wrong, and she called the local police in the area of Illinois where her parents live.

When officers went to check on Len Butler, they found him gravely ill after falling four and a half days earlier.

"He was awake but he was severely dehydrated," Kelly Anne Butler told CBC's Newfoundland Morning.

"They took him, of course, to the hospital, and they found that he had pneumonia. He had blood clots in his lung and one of his legs."

Now, after more than a year, Len Butler still can't walk on his own. He's making some progress using a walker and with the help of a therapist, but the previously independent senior hasn't been able to return to his home. 

Butler believes her father's recovery would have been faster and more complete if his fall had been discovered sooner, even though there was little she could immediately do for him from 3,500 kilometres away.

"I had a tremendous amount of guilt," she said.

Not uncommon story

The Butlers' story is a familiar one to many first responders who, from time to time, are asked to to check on a person living alone, only to find them extremely ill or even deceased.

Cpl. Jolene Garland, media relations officer with the RCMP in N.L., said it's common for them to get a call about someone living alone.

"Oftentimes, we'll just get a complaint of concern from somebody in the community who has noticed that they haven't seen the person," said Garland.

Sometimes, when police respond, what they find is tragic.

"We'll never know for sure, but there would be cases, if medical attention was received, where the outcome could be much different. They could be treated and still here today," said Garland.

RCMP Cpl. Jolene Garland says it's not uncommon for police to respond to calls from concerned neighbours or family who can't reach someone living alone. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

Home alone, by the numbers

Neither the RCMP nor the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in N.L. were able to provide statistics on how often people who live alone get very sick or even die without anyone noticing right away. Sudden deaths are tracked, but that's a broader category than just deaths of people who live alone.

I had a tremendous amount of guilt.- Kelly Anne Butler

Still, according to 2016 census data, the proportion of one-person households in this province and country is steadily rising — up from 18 per cent of N.L. households in 2001, to 24 per cent of households in 2016. 

More and more people are living alone, whether by choice or circumstance, so that one in every 10 people in N.L. — nearly 54,000 people — now lives by themselves.

If those living solo don't have a plan for someone to check on them, that's a lot of people who could get sick or be injured without anyone knowing.

Plan for the worst

Garland said people living alone should arrange for someone to check in regularly, just to be sure they're OK.

"If you know of somebody that's living alone, just making that effort within the community to check on their well-being from time to time, certainly wouldn't hurt," Garland said. 

She said it's better for someone to check on you and to find that you're OK, rather than to need medical assistance and be unable to call for help yourself.

Kelly Anne Butler said people should talk about it ahead of time with their neighbours or loved ones, so everyone has an understanding about how long to wait before calling in authorities.

Len Butler arrives at Sewart Air Force Base, with his wife, Marina Bennett Butler, originally from St. Georges, and his young daughter, Kelly Anne. (Kelly Anne Butler/Submitted)

She said she wishes she'd made such a plan with her father, and had a conversation where she'd asked questions like, "Hey, Dad, what is a good period of time? How long would you want me to wait before I call and ask someone to go check on you?"

Instead, Butler said, she wasted precious time, not knowing what to do and not wanting to invade her father's privacy.

"All I kept thinking was, if I send the police over there and he's just sitting there watching golf and doesn't want anyone to bother him, he's going to be really mad. But it ended up of course that he was very, very happy that I had called the police," said Butler.

Garland cautioned that the RCMP doesn't want to be swamped with phone calls from people who are overreacting to being unable to reach a loved one.

But, she said, if you can't reach a friend or loved one, and no one else is around to check on them, better safe than sorry, and police will visit to ensure everything's OK.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Bernice Hillier is a host of CBC Newfoundland Morning, which airs weekday mornings across western and central Newfoundland, as well as southern Labrador.