fire fry pan stove fire blanket

Living in fear. Fire blankets are a must for kitchens.

Question: Our building was on fire again today.  The elderly owner concerned has caused fires in the building many times in the past few years.

The owner, who needs nursing home care, thinks that because he owns the unit, nothing can be done to force him to leave. Do we have to wait until the whole building burns down before we take some action? Does the EC have a duty of care? Mrs Maker, via Forum 

Answer: As our population grows older and increasingly isolated it’s no surprise, I suppose, that I’m hearing increasing reports of residents who are not only a danger to themselves but, especially in strata, to those living around them.

This is really tricky area and one where most of us would love to be able to do something constructive but are reluctant to interfere with our neighbours’ lives. But if strata really is community – and when family structures are often non-existent – somebody has to step up, for everyone’s sake.  And while the Executive Committee can help organise things, this is more of a community responsibility than a legal duty.

Once the neighbours’ fear for their lives has overcome their natural reticence, the questions arise, who do they call and what questions do they ask? I made a few inquiries on a hypothetical basis and the one reassuring message I got from the agencies who can help is that their first priority is to the individual who’s in trouble.

Assuming (as I know is the case in Mrs Maker’s block) neighbours want to help this person, they can try to get a community carer employed via Aged Care Australia. If there’s already an unofficial carer in place, they can get a lot of support and advice there too. The place to start is the Aged Care website which offers practical links to available services.

If the resident’s condition is a lot more serious, for instance if they have a decision-making disability that means they are partially or wholly incapable of looking after themselves, it may be necessary to have a legal guardian appointed.

By the way, only a professional can make that initial assessment but if that’s the best option, the guardian can then make decisions about how and where the neighbour lives. You’ll find more information about guardianships on the  various websites for NSW, QueenslandVictoria, ACT, WA, Tasmania or South Australia.

If the resident has a diagnosed mental illness, a doctor familiar with their case or their principal carer can apply for a Community Treatment Order (CTO) which lets patients stay in their home provided they accept necessary treatment and management. If that’s not appropriate, they can also be admitted for residential care.

For more information have a look at the NSW Mental Health Review Tribunal’s website (or go online for advice in the ACT, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, WA or Tasmania), then talk to their doctor or principal carer about the best options.

By the way, alcoholism is not considered a mental illness but in extreme cases where the person or their family or neighbours’ lives are at serious risk, police have an admittedly rarely used power to detain the person and apply for a court order requiring them to undertake residential rehabilitation.

The last three options are pretty extreme, but if you have an elderly neighbor who’s a potential danger to themselves or those living around them, and there’s no one looking after them, start with Aged Care Australia to see what the best next step might be. 

People do slip through the support services net occasionally and if you do feel something needs to be done, there’s no need to feel guilty:  whoever you call is going to have the best interests of your neighbour at heart. You can read the whole story and comment or relate your own experiences here.