Sunday, August 31, 2003

PARIS — French politicians, after two weeks of taking the heat for thousands of deaths among mainly elderly people during a mid-August heatwave, have begun turning the blame back on the families of the dead.

Many of the victims appear to have been left alone during July and August, when France virtually shuts down as families go on holiday.

“Is it normal that there were 300 people who hadn’t been buried because the family had not turned up to claim the body? Is that the government’s fault?” asked Hubert Falco, the secretary of state for the elderly.

“This means there are 300 families who have not yet realized that they have a granny or a mother who is dead,” he said last week.

The death total, which has been placed at more than 11,000, has prompted a furious debate about who is responsible for the welfare of the nation’s elderly who live alone.

“We’re all guilty,” declared the front page of the popular daily newspaper Le Parisien, which added: “It is not up to the state to take care of our elderly. It is up to us.”

Others said families should not be “criminalized.”

“It is important to realize that there are many old people who are totally alone, with no family. But it’s also true that there are some whose families are still on holiday, and that is what is so shocking,” said Bernadette Coulon-Kiang of the Paris social services.

Concern about care for the elderly is also rising in Britain, where a prominent think tank has proposed that companies set up “granny creches” where employees can drop off their elderly relatives and know they are being looked after while they are at work.

The think tank Demos, whose ideas are believed to influence the thinking of Prime Minister Tony Blair, said elderly people would be cared for and entertained with talks, dancing or having manicures while they wait to be picked up.

Critics say the creches could become “dumping grounds” for the elderly. But others cite the idea as an innovative approach to a growing problem.

Many French families, stung by the criticism, appear to be stricken by grief and guilt over the deaths of their seniors. One middle-aged couple who arrived with their two daughters at a makeshift morgue outside Paris pursed their lips, shook their heads and refused to speak.

Inside the morgue, where at one point 200 unclaimed bodies were being stored in 39-degree temperatures, Alain Bachelier, director of Pompes Funebres Generales, France’s biggest undertakers, said he understood the relatives’ reticence.

“Of course people who went away on holiday and didn’t take care of their nearest and dearest, and didn’t even telephone to see if they were all right, are feeling guilty about this,” he said. “I’m sure they’re having to come to terms with this among themselves.”

At the end of last week, the white-coated and masked mortuary assistants at the refrigerated former food warehouse at the national market near Paris were down to their last 15 corpses and preparing to shut for good.

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