A Death Unnoticed or Neighbourhood What? By Trevor Plumbly

Lonely Death

We’re all a bit battle hardened when it comes to the news and I’m certainly no exception; but occasionally the odd story strikes a chord and I get moved to shove it into as many people’s consciences as possible, hence this departure from poking fun at some aspects of life. I read this morning of an elderly man’s body being discovered some six weeks after his death, and I couldn’t shake the feeling of utter sadness. Dying, despite the adventure yarns and Hollywood versions, is still a sad affair for a lot of folk; but to suffer it totally alone and in squalor surely epitomises human cruelty by indifference. Sadly these cases aren’t that rare or restricted to class and low income; they happen in most cities and large towns all over the world. This particular case occurred in a small city of around a 100,000 inhabitants in a predominantly working class area (I can’t really call it a community). The man’s body was discovered only when a pharmacist alerted the Police after the man failed to collect his medication for two weeks and here’s where I get angry.

Neighbourly Care Lacking

Is the concept of neighbourly concern now restricted to soap operas? He was described as ‘reclusive’: so what? That shouldn’t sentence him to die in abject misery, should it? Houses in that particular street aren’t especially remote, so you would think that even an elderly ‘recluse’ must have encountered some measure of human contact. But apparently isolation’s the norm in the ironically named ‘Playfair Street’. One ‘neighbour’ underlined this by informing the press: ‘That’s the way it is in South Dunedin, we mind our own business and don’t interfere…’ How nice. They had only spoken to him once in the 60 years they’d lived in the street. Wow! Talk about respecting privacy. Another ‘noticed’ that no lights were turned on at all, the lawns were unkempt and the letter box stuffed to overflowing, sure indications that an elderly person living alone was in some sort of trouble.

Neighbourhood Involvement

Obviously, when someone prefers to isolate themselves, this sort of situation becomes likely, but nevertheless still preventable. Neighbourhood Watch could draw up a list of elderly and disabled people in the street and a roster of people willing to call or phone on a regular basis could be formed for a start. Junk mail distributors could be provided with a contact number to ring when elderly residents fail to clear their mailbox. It’s a university city with the usual student social problems so where are the Mayor and Chancellor on this one? What better way for Town and Gown to unite than for students to ‘adopt a grandparent’ and help out with window cleaning, weeding and other basic jobs which the elderly just find difficult.

Finally, what about you and me? I live in a relatively quiet street in a desirable suburb in Auckland and don’t see much of need of any sort, but I do exchange greetings with neighbours and passers-by whenever the opportunity presents itself, and of course I’ve stuck my head above the firing line by using a sad old man’s death to instil a bit of guilt into those reading this. For you, if you’ve got elderly relatives or friends; don’t wait for birthdays, contact them for no reason: a simple hello from you is a major event for them. Finally, please pass this on if you can, it’s not an important piece of social documentation, just the ruminations of someone a lot luckier than an old man dying in a community that doesn’t seem to know how to cope with people who simply…can’t cope.

 

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