Kirsty Scott reveals Scotland has the worst record for failing to keep a kindly eye on the old and vulnerable

JOHN SHEPPARD was one of society's invisibles, an elderly, isolated man whose existence revolved around his small one-bedroom flat in North London. Sometime after his 69th birthday he died, as he had lived, quietly and alone, and it was three and a half years before two workmen, trying to trace a water leak, entered his flat and found his remains.

The case caused uproar, led to a rash of studies and inquiries that lambasted our hands-off, uncaring, walk-on-by society, and called for us all to be better neighbours.

That was two years ago, and John Sheppards are still being found in flats, houses, streets, and alleyways the length and breadth of Britain.

It emerged yesterday that a 58-year-old robbery victim had died after lying injured and tied to a bed for 10 days in his Camden Town flat. Bachelor Alan Holmes would probably have been able to hear the colleagues who shouted through his letter box nine days after the attack, but he would not have been able to call out, and they eventually walked away. He died in hospital last week, the day after he was finally discovered.

And there are many more. Last summer the smell of decay and swarms of flies emanating from an Edinburgh apartment led authorities - eventually - to the body of 62-year-old Ian Pattison who had hanged himself nine months previously. A former psychiatric patient, he had missed a number of hospital appointments but had not himself been missed.

The same day the body of a 69-year-old man was found in his home in Kinross. He had been dead for two months.

Then just last week two men were found separately in Peterhead. Joe Brocklehurst, 79, had lain in his flat for three months; 30-year-old David McIver, who had a history of alcohol problems, had been dead for a month and was found by a council workman who broke into his flat believing it to have been abandoned.

It's estimated that more than 20,000 people, mostly elderly, die alone and unnoticed in their homes in the UK every year and Scotland has a worse record than elsewhere for keeping a kindly eye on the elderly and vulnerable around us. A study by Mori earlier this year found that pensioners were more likely to be ignored within the community north of the Border than in many other areas of the UK.

Liz Duncan, Scottish services manager with Help the Aged said: ``The reality is that we have a situation now that we have to start looking at. And it is not just a problem of the elderly. Statistically speaking one-third of households in Scotland are single-person households and that can be right across the age range. There are a lot of people living on their own.

``What we say to people is do not presume things when it comes to someone older or younger or with health problems, anyone a bit more vulnerable. But remember, if you make an approach you may get rebuffed and rebuffed more than once. We have also been talking about trying to set up better co-operation between all the statutory services, where there is a known vulnerability. People should not be embarrassed about getting things checked out. If someone is furious because their door gets kicked in, then that may be better than nothing having been done about it, if someone is concerned.''

Duncan was part of the team which conducted an investigation into the death of John Sheppard and said it would be wrong to assume that no-one had looked out for him or others like him.

``When you look at the case of John Sheppard, a lot of assumptions were made. A couple of people had called him at various points and got no reply, but they didn't pursue it at the time, each thinking that someone else was doing something. It was not as if he was ignored.''

Despite the tragedy of such cases, Duncan doesn't believe they are necessarily indicative of a less compassionate society.

``Forty years ago these sorts of things did happen, but they might not have gone on for three and a half years, but people did still die alone back then. They may just not have been reported in the press as they are now.

``I do, however, think society has changed an awful lot and the saddest thing is that a lot of older people have become marginalised. Because they are not involved in the community they tend not to be a part of it, but it's not that people care any less.''

That view is echoed by Dr James Baxter, an expert in social psychology at Strathclyde University. He says it is not the public who has changed or hardened but the care-giving structure which has become more fragmented and less focused.

``It is all about who should be looking out for someone. Those of us who are bystanders or neighbours are likely to assume it's someone else's responsibility. It isn't that people are becoming less caring overall. I think the responsibilities for various people have become more diffuse than they once were. Families don't always live in the same street, same town, even same country any more. People tend to assume the state looks after elderly people and the state tends to assume that families do it, and somehow these individuals get lost. I don't think it's indicative of any trend towards people becoming harder or less caring than they were, so much as the organisation of care processes is much less clear now than it was.

``It's known as diffusion of responsibility. Everyone assumes that someone else should be doing something about it. Also people today are pretty stressed; they have their own problems with their own lives. They may tend to pass the buck or assume someone else will take the responsibility.

``It is well known that it is harder to hitch a lift in a busy street than it is on a deserted road. If it's busy you think someone else will pick them up. This is the same phenomenon writ large with more serious consequences.''

Perhaps more worryingly, that same ability to turn a blind eye extends from the largely unseen suffering to more visible problems.

``There are numerous instances documented in psychological research of the failure of bystanders to intervene on occasions where other people appear to require help, whether people are being attacked or need help in another form,'' said Baxter. ``There are classic experiments of someone apparently suffering some kind of seizure of a busy subway. What we have found is that the more people there are in the carriageway, the likelier it is that no-one will help them. Everyone assumes someone else will do something, and that they don't really need to get involved.''

Liz Duncan believes that those who may have difficulty relating to the whole issue of lonely deaths should consider what might happen to them in similar circumstances.

``If you ask around people you know who live alone and see how long it would be before someone found you should something happen, say you fell in the attic, in some cases it would be at least five days. Then it would depend on people getting keys and getting in. Just think how long it might be for you.''