This week’s British Medical Journal has an excellent short article on ‘Diogenes syndrome’, an unofficial name for the situation where an older person is living in squalor without seeming to have mental or neurological impairments that might explain it, but without seeming to mind either.
The syndrome is named after the Ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope who gave up mainstream life to live in poverty and made his home in a barrel.
Older adults found fit the description of the syndrome are often referred to psychiatrists, but the author, psychiatrist Brian Murray, wonders whether we’re missing Diogenes’ point – that happiness has nothing to do with material circumstances.
Alternatively, Diogenes syndrome may simply be a description of a social situation. This would fit with my impression that referrals for Diogenes syndrome have tailed off since reality television programmes started showing celebrity cleaning ladies helping “normal” people living in squalor. Age seems to be a factor: perhaps it is a sign of our paternalistic culture that a person younger than 65 living in squalor is seen by millions on television, whereas those past the age of 65 are seen by a psychiatrist.
Link to thoughtful BMJ piece on Diogenes syndrome.