Aging • A man, 91, wants to die in his house as community debates how to help.
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Levan • Mike Royce ducks beneath the eave of a sagging porch, shielding a steaming box of takeout food from melting snow and saber-like icicles. Just before he shakes open the thin door he doesn't knock he nods toward a plastic-covered window.
"That's the condemnation notice," he says, pointing to a blurry square taped to the plastic. "Someone spray-painted over it."
Inside, he's greeted by the smell of dust and rotting leather. Cobwebs thick as rope drape the walls. Royce steps through a low, narrow doorway framed in decaying wood and leans toward the mountain of blankets on a soiled bed.
"Hello, Klarence," he says in a near shout. The only reply is a hacking cough.
Royce is one of a rotating group of Levan residents who bring one meal a day to 91-year-old Klarence Meldrum. As far as they know, it's all Meldrum eats. The bottled water, coffee and Pepsi they deliver is all he drinks. And he never leaves his home a crumbling adobe structure just off the highway that passersby sometimes mistake for an abandoned building. Royce isn't sure how often, if ever, Meldrum leaves his bed.
By all accounts, Meldrum has always been a recluse. After returning from World War II where according to Royce, Meldrum was a B-17 tailgunner Meldrum kept to himself. He never married or had children and gradually holed up in the small corner home he inherited from his family. He collects Social Security, though Royce said he lives pretty much without spending any money at all.
But as Meldrum nears the end of his life, his situation has worsened, forcing a community to grapple with issues stemming from his age and the squalor in which he lives. Their response was forming a voluntary support group to care for one of their own. But Meldrum's living conditions continue to spawn controversy and questions with no easy answers.
A dire situation • Community members describe Meldrum's living conditions as "dire," "appalling," and "horrible."
"He's basically homeless in place," Royce said.
The wood of his living room floor is soft, with gaps between the boards. One wall of his kitchen is deeply warped, a wave crested by dangling insulation. Towers of soiled books Rise of the Romans, Ancient Iraq, Search for Significance pack the living room. A greasy black film described by one neighbor as "fungus" covers everything.
Royce warned against looking in the bathroom. "It'll gross you out. There's no running water." Its low ceiling is festooned with spider webs. Buckets of dark liquid stagnate in the bathtub.
"It's cold, so the smell isn't as bad," Royce said. In the summer, he describes the odor as "ripe."
According to Royce, Meldrum uses a bucket for liquid waste. In the past, he used the non-functioning toilet for solid waste, then waited for it to become dry before shoveling it away with a pie tin. Royce who in the past used a hazmat suit to go into the bathroom replaced the tin with a leaf bag to make disposal easier.
Bad as the conditions are, Royce said Meldrum has been living more or less the same way for decades. Bathing, hygiene and socializing with other people were never high priorities. Now, Royce says, Meldrum just wants to die the way he has lived.
"He wants to die in his own house," Royce said. "And he doesn't want to go anywhere."
Rights and responsibilities • But the prospect of letting Meldrum die in squalor doesn't sit well with everyone, including part-time Levan resident Dennis Gardner. In early 2012, Gardner was among those delivering meals to the home. As the weather warmed, he helped replace Meldrum's blankets, which he said disintegrated as they were peeled off the bed.
In August, Gardner helped orchestrate a trip to the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Salt Lake City. At some point during the visit, Meldrum slipped away and hospital workers lost track of him, according to Royce. Everyone panicked. The hospital went on lockdown. Later, someone found Meldrum on the other side of the building, rattling doors as he tried to get out.
Despite his resistance, Meldrum was given physical and mental exams, Gardner said. Though he was reportedly described as "cantankerous" and physically dirty, Gardner said doctors ultimately determined he was mentally competent and could make decisions for himself.
"They found he was sound of mind," Gardner recalled.
Representatives for the VA Hospital declined to comment on the case, citing patient confidentiality laws.
Other attempts to get help for Meldrum have met similar resistance, with Meldrum "swearing" and "bawling and screaming" that he doesn't want to go anywhere, according to Royce. As a result, many in the community feel they are respecting his wishes by leaving him in his home.
"If a person wants to, they have a right to die at home," said Jerry Clark, another member of the group who delivers Meldrum's meals.
Meldrum's niece, Rosalie Hooks, agrees. Hooks lives in southern Utah County and is Meldrum's closest relative. Hooks said she sees Meldrum weekly and that he has chosen his living conditions.
"I know his conditions aren't the best, but he has the right if he wants to go live under a bridge," Hooks said.
Gardner disagrees. Shortly before leaving Levan for the winter he helped locate nearby rental housing and suggested moving Meldrum there. But nothing happened.
"It just seems that even though they're feeding him and they've got some heat in there, I don't think that really equals taking care of his comfort and well-being," Gardner said. "I think it just keeps him alive. I treat my pets a lot better than that."
The government's role • Representatives for Adult Protective Services would not comment on Meldrum's situation, but Royce said a caseworker has been involved. But as long as Meldrum is mentally competent, he has the right to make his own decisions.
"We wish there was a win-win answer to this," Royce said, "but we're not about to take away all of his civil rights."
Speaking generally, Utah Department of Human Services spokeswoman Elizabeth Sollis said authorities are required to respect the wishes of adults who are intellectually capable. Sollis said that if her department receives a report of a vulnerable adult, authorities can step in with various forms of aid. But if a person refuses help, the government's hands are tied.
"Ultimately if they have capacity, and they don't want us to help, then we have to respect that," Sollis said.
For nearly a quarter of a century before he became home-bound, Meldrum spent his afternoons at Lisa's Kitchen in Nephi. It's a western-themed joint with framed pictures of moose and deer on the walls. Every day, said owner Lisa King, Meldrum sat at the middle of the counter, listening and watching but rarely talking.
King mostly fed Meldrum for free. In the beginning, she handed him a "mistake plate," claiming she couldn't give it to her paying customers. Then she started making mistakes every day. In recent years, a group from Levan collected money and gave it to King to help cover the costs.
When Meldrum's lunches at Lisa's ended first, Royce said his car broke down and then he became too unkempt to go inside the community stepped in.
That process has continued with the delivery of Meldrum's meals, even as the controversy about how to help him won't die.
"We do have some community pride," Royce said. "We do care about Klarence. We've all said that when he passes away, when he dies, we want to be able look back at what we've done for him."