Comment: Living in solitude, dying alone: what I learned from the scene of an unattended death

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Too many of our elderly are living and dying alone.

She died just before her birthday, a fact not discovered until six months after what would have been her 90th. The dead woman’s Auburn house was as she left it and not a single soul knew the widow was decomposing through the kitchen floor of the house she’d lived in for almost half a century.

This was just one case in the 150 unattended deaths cleaned up every year by forensic cleaner Lee Iordanis including the mysterious death of Natalie Wood who lay undiscovered in her Kippax St, Surry Hills home for eight years.

She was born in the Czech Republic in 1924. She was intelligent and studied medicine, before travelling to Egypt where she was married. She worked as a bilingual translator in Morocco before immigrating to Australia in 1957. She lived with her husband in their Auburn house from 1966. Her husband died in 2001 in an aged care facility, a place she reviled and remained suspicious of until the end, perhaps explaining why she hesitated to seek help.

Unattended deaths leave behind many unanswered questions. But this case was different, and left an incredible window into a generation of elderly people left alone in life and in death.

I opened the fridge and found the last litre of milk she bought dated January 7. It would have been the last time she was seen.

After putrefaction, the butyric fermentation and then dry decay, her bones were the only things left for the Coroner to remove except for the grey wisp of her disembodied scalp left perched on the chair she must have collapsed on. Her tea cup was sideways on the table, the tablecloth was wrinkled as if by two hands in agony. Her cheap Chinese slippers were left scattered amongst the dead maggots on the still damp floor.

The forensic cleaning crew set about pulling up the floor, even excavating the dirt underneath it, and stripping the entire house of soft furnishings as is standard practice when a death occurs in a house shut up for months like this. By not disclosing the woman’s name, whose worldly possessions are now in the hands of the public trustee, light can be shed on more intimate details of her life.

When the elderly die alone without any relatives, such as in this case, a state-appointed cleaner collects everything worth selling. Everything else is thrown away.

The oil paintings she made hung on the living room wall. What few photos, mementos and sentimental papers from her immigration she kept in a tin. It all ends up in a skip bin.

So too the unassuming pile of cheap exercise books which lay next to her unfinished cryptic crossword and spectacles. They were filled with thousands of pages of immaculately handwritten diaries, which although smelling deeply of death and decay, would affect me profoundly.

She was born in the Czech Republic in 1924. She was intelligent and studied medicine, before travelling to Egypt where she was married. She worked as a bilingual translator in Morocco before immigrating to Australia in 1957. She lived with her husband in their Auburn house from 1966. Her husband died in 2001 in an aged care facility, a place she reviled and remained suspicious of until the end, perhaps explaining why she hesitated to seek help.

She wrote about falls she suffered and how grateful she was for the strength to get up again, otherwise she would have remained on the floor. Her one neighbour often saw her writing in her diary on her porch, describing her as an independent and philosophical woman. She wrote with exquisite clarity in English for a Czech-born migrant with a beautifully deliberate cursive script, without errors. Some pages, which according to her index listed topics such as “depression”, “ageing”, “the mind” and “progress”, were razor-bladed out.

Her handwriting noticeably deteriorated in the 10 or so years she kept writing them. Her bank statements revealed she had money, but she chose to live simply.

She complained about the upcoming digital TV retune. She wrote that Telstra disconnected the phone because she wasn't getting enough calls from friends who were all dead. She wrote that her Medicare card was discontinued and she didn't know how to renew it.

Most disturbingly, she wrote about how she had prepared to commit suicide by preparing a cocktail of lethal drugs to hasten the coup de grace.

Her will showed her beneficiaries neatly crossed out as they had died successively. She left the house to the RSPCA. Her last testament requested her two remaining wishes to be granted.

One was that her ashes be interred with those of her husband, which sat high up over the mantelpiece. The other was that she be allowed to die with dignity, with no extraordinary measures to be used, no needles, no tubes, no machines.

If you are concerned about your neighbour or member of your community, here is what you can do:

Telephone your local police for a "welfare check” on someone in your community you believe might need help or assistance.

The Community Visitors Scheme is a national program of volunteers that provides companionship to socially or culturally isolated people living in Australian Government-subsidised aged care homes. Call 1800 200 422 for more information.

Neighbour Day is run by Relationships Australia and is an annual celebration of community, bringing together the people next door, across the street or on the next farm for a beer, a barbie or just a cuppa. They specifically target the protection of the elderly, the vulnerable and the disadvantaged. Call 1300 364 277 for more information.

Telecross provides peace of mind to people who are isolated through a daily call to check on their wellbeing and safety. The Red Cross service provides trained volunteers to make calls each morning, 365 days a year to. In the event of three unanswered calls in one day, Red Cross begins an emergency activation procedure to make sure the person is ok. Call 1300 885 698 to volenteerfor more information.

Lifeline offers free 24 hour phone counselling on 13 11 14.

Get in touch with your local council to see what community programs are run in your area.

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