We can do better than allow another Michael Clarke to die unnoticed

SEAN PLUNKET
Last updated 15:34 03/09/2011

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Sean Plunket

Let kids make their way Royal roadshow back in town Meeting a transgender 8-year-old Supermarket shopping may become patriotic Shifting house mainly a relocation of clutter and memories To the culture minister, I say 'chur' and keep up the good work Internet party amateur and vain Grateful for no smart phones in days of youth Sticky subjects at the dinner table Avatar deal first step to prosperity

OPINION: My romanticised version of my own death involves a glass of red wine, family and friends gathered around a comfortable bed, a pithy comment and a gentle sigh as I gracefully depart this mortal coil after a full and prosperous life.

As any who have witnessed death even under the most benign circumstances know, the real thing is a whole lot tougher, which is perhaps why we are so loath to discuss the subject.

This week Wellington was forced to confront the issue of mortality after the discovery of 88-year-old Michael Clarke's body in his Newtown Park bedsit.

The death of an elderly citizen is not in itself headline news, nor is the fact that some seniors die alone, their corpses only being discovered some time later. What made Michael Clarke's passing so noteworthy was the length of time he lay dead in a crowded block of council flats with no friends, family, officials or neighbours knowing or caring that he was gone.

The precise length of time the world turned without noticing Michael Clarke's death isn't really important. Be it 10, 12 or 14 months it still produces the same sense of horror, shock, anger and guilt in us who collectively didn't know.

Perhaps the outrage and anger generated at this story comes from the fear that such a pathetic and lonely end could befall us as well.

From what we know, Michael Clarke kept to himself, paid his bills on time and had what a council spokesman described as "a very thin file" despite 30 years or more as a tenant at the Newtown Park Flats.

So, not being a squeaky wheel, Michael Clarke didn't need any oiling. There are suggestions that his private life (did he have anything but) may have involved lifestyle choices that were far less acceptable 30 or 40 years ago than they are now. That may have been a factor in the reclusive life he chose to lead.

Still, in the middle of a busy city you would think someone would notice. Wellington City Council has launched an investigation which hopefully will explain why Michael Clarke's home hadn't been inspected since a maintenance man came to check his fire alarm last November. Maybe it will tell us how the appointment of a social worker and new community engagement programmes will reduce the chances of this tragedy being repeated.

But the council shouldn't shoulder the "blame" for what happened to Michael Clarke alone. What about the electricity company that didn't notice he wasn't using any power, the neighbours who didn't notice his absence and the total lack of movement in his flat, and his healthcare providers (if there were any) who failed to register that Michael Clarke simply vanished off the face of the earth some time last year.

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It's all very well to say Michael Clarke kept to himself, that he chose to lead the life he did and no-one else had the right to tell him otherwise. That is a cop-out.

In a civilised, cool little capital like ours we should collectively and individually be able to do better. I don't know if that means drawing up a schedule to check on your neighbours every second day or having an army of social workers monitoring the movements of our elderly who live alone. St John does offer a free service where they can check on people every week or so.

I guess what I'm talking about is just caring a little more, taking an interest in the people around us and rejecting the idea that if someone is paying their bills on time then all must be right in their world.

Ironically, the only reason Michael Clarke's death was eventually noticed was that the council was trying to tell him the Newtown Park Flats will be demolished to make way for what we can only hope is a better designed and better run council housing project.

Maybe we should call it the Michael Clarke Complex as a reminder of what it shouldn't be, how its landlord shouldn't behave, and how its residents shouldn't live. It might also be some sort of apology to Michael Clarke for the way we all collectively let him live and die. Chances are we will all read more stories like Michael Clarke's before our time comes; it would just be nice to make such sorry tales far more exceptional than they are now.

In the meantime, like most of you, I'm trying not to think about the end other than to imagine what vintage I'll be quaffing when I make my exit.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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