How does someone die alone?

00:54, Jul 07 2013
Richard Giese
RICHARD GEISE: Found about two weeks after he died.

How does someone die alone in their home without anyone realising? Charles Anderson and Marika Hill report. 

Soon after 8pm on the Wednesday, Senior Sergeant Dan Foley of Hastings Police made his way up the concrete drive of 910 Duke St.

He paced over the lawn that grew slightly over the soles of his shoes, past the three blue pot plants that lined the pavement and up the wooden bungalow's three steps. He opened the door, put his hand to the light switch and flicked it. Nothing.

Wiremu Whakaue
WIREMU WHAKAUE: Found in his Newtown, Wellington flat eight months after he died.

Several officers stood in the front yard as neighbours filtered past the house. They wanted to know what had happened. One of those neighbours said she had not seen the woman who lived at the property for some time.

Usually she could be seen roaring down the road on a red motorcycle, wearing a black helmet. The bike was usually parked in the driveway.

But recently, through the month of March, they had noticed something else - mail, bleached by the sun, piling up in the letterbox. One neighbour thought she should go over and knock on the door, just to make sure the tenant was OK, but she never got around to it. Eventually one did. There was no answer. Then, they called the police.


Lauren Silbery
LAUREN SILBERY: Found two days after she died, with her two-year-old.

In the darkness of what seemed to be the kitchen all Foley saw was the dull outline of a body. He could smell it.

For a body to reach that stage of decomposition it must have been there for some time. The power, which was on a prepaid contract, had long since run out.

It was unclear what had happened. Save for two cats which were roaming the empty halls of the property, the woman was alone in the house. No easy conclusions could be made. Detectives were called in.

It would be several days before police decided there were no suspicious circumstances. Kirstine Hill, 37, had died about three weeks earlier - alone and of natural causes. Her death was referred to the coroner.

She is just one of the dozens of people who each year die in similar circumstances - one of the dozens left for days, weeks and sometimes months at a time before anyone realises they are missing.

The media often speak to neighbours or family who talk of "nice and quiet" people who "keep to themselves". Stories, though, are seldom that simple. The woman at 910 Duke St was a person. And, though it was not released by police, she had a name and a mother who lived in nearby Clive.

Her family were left with many questions. The most concerning: how does someone die alone, in their own home, without anyone realising?

For a man proud of his clutter, Lewis Clarkson died with little. At the former state house he had just started renting in Palmerston North, a pile of documents lay at his bedside. There was a degree, a diploma, some textbooks and a few essays.

The white weatherboard home had no fence and you could usually see through the front window as you walked by. For some time, though, neighbours had noticed the curtains were drawn. Kaleena Wildbore, who lived next door, thought Lewis must have been away.

Then there were the flies. They had congregated in Lewis's room and occasionally made a dash to the sun behind the curtains.

As Wildbore watched officers breaking into the flat on Friday, March 22, she gagged, grabbed her baby and left her house. It was a smell, she said, you could not get rid of.

"I would have been the last person to actually see him," she told a Manawatu Standard reporter.

"I had said hello over the fence and over the mailbox, that was about it."

Lewis had only just moved in but letters were already stacking up in the letterbox.

Police, who identified him by the wallet at his bed, said there was little furniture in the flat.

The rising cost of rent after the Christchurch earthquakes had forced Lewis to Manawatu. He had been looking forward to being closer to Massey University while he finished his Bachelor of Arts.

A month earlier he had thrown out most of his possessions, including the 1970s rotting furniture for which he once thought he paid a good price.

An old friend said he used to live alone with cats and cleaned his home by washing it down with a hose. Friends would occasionally come round and put their feet through a kitchen floor that had almost disintegrated.

Lewis was estranged from most of his family. There were money issues, friends said. A sister lived in the same city but they didn't speak. Another sister in Christchurch refused to speak to reporters after his death. Despite once studying dispute resolution, Lewis had apparently failed to repay loans and there were arguments over his mother's will.

His friends remember a challenging, unusual character who liked to argue. He wore an unsightly acrylic wig for most of his life. He enjoyed pie and spuds - a student staple - and recently suffered a mild stroke. He had also been diagnosed with diabetes.

During the 1970s and early 1980s Lewis worked as an office manager, but restructuring led to the first of a series of redundancies. He entered into some bizarre business setups called Cross Gate Limited, Up Holdings and Ecstasy Nightclubs.

"He was going to record music or something," family friend Murray Clark said. "He paid huge money for computers, probably borrowed money, and the cats ended up peeing on them. I don't think he did anything with them."

Lewis was the third of five children of Robert Martin and Evelyn Rose Clarkson.

His father's poor health, because of wounds suffered at Guadalcanal in the Pacific during World War II, meant he could no longer farm the land. The family were forced to sell the family farm at Waiterimu, Waikato, and moved to Hamilton.

Mark Clarkson, who lives in Brisbane, last saw his brother just after their mother's funeral 20 years ago, but the pair kept in touch via email.

They grew up as a poor family, where life could be solitary and brutish, Mark said. His brother was proud-and-out gay - not an easy existence in small-town New Zealand during the 1960s.

"These are the days when, at a country dance, the men went down one end of the hall or woolshed to have a beer; the women the other end to drink tea, and occasionally a bloke would ask a girl to dance."

His father ignored his son's sexuality. His mother waited for him to bring home Mrs Right.

"I do not think he ever found true love or the happiness that can come from finding that special partner," Mark said.

"Lewis often said that we Clarksons keep our partners as if they were pets."

Old friend Ralph Boardman said Lewis's death came with a sense of guilt. Ralph occasionally supported him financially but Lewis always said he would pay him back.

"When he didn't, I thought maybe he's having a few problems so I didn't want to hound him. After two weeks, I put it on the back burner. I had other things going on."

There is a growing vulnerability in New Zealand communities, Grey Power's social services spokeswoman Violet McCowatt said.

Now there are automatic bill payments and neighbours minding their own business. Those among us who choose seclusion are left to fend for themselves, McCowatt said.

"Years ago you used to have backyard barbecues with neighbours, but everybody is too busy and has to work. This is one of the tragic things."

The country was getting older, she said, but more isolated. The community was too frightened to speak out with concerns about neighbours.

"For God's sake, reach out and take somebody's hand. Even if your neighbour thinks you're nosy. Don't worry about that - make contact."

Age Concern said as many as 50,000 older New Zealanders were likely to be severely and chronically lonely. Its chief executive Ann Martin said there seemed to be an increasing number living alone as a result of marriage breakups and dispersing families.

Loneliness is not a disease, said international researcher John Cacioppo, it was like feeling hungry or thirsty. It was part of being human. Just as thirst is the prompt that reminds us keep our bodies hydrated, loneliness is the prompt that reminds us how much we depend on one another, he said.

In a recent study carried out in an Auckland retirement facility, 17 residents were asked to share their thoughts on loneliness.

Loneliness was described as a "painful and multiform experience", and different from being alone.

The residents said one must take some personal responsibility, such as being involved in activities.

"Connecting with others. Helping others, talking, listening, and fixing up quarrels were proposed as important ways to connect meaningfully with others," clinical psychologist Isabelle Miclette said.

Demographic changes in Western societies predicted a steady increase in the number of older people who live alone longer, and who do not have the support of spouses or children.

"Older people are more likely to lose family members and friends, and are vulnerable due to the effects of a smaller social pool," Miclette said.

A sudden disruption to social support networks could make people vulnerable to loneliness, such as the loss of a partner, friend, children and pets.

Tau Nati said he knew something was wrong when he had not seen his neighbour Ray Preston for two weeks. Preston used to walk to the library close to the Community Lane housing complex in West Auckland.

Nati and another neighbour went to look through the window of Preston's single room unit. Its door - a latticework of white metal - was locked. The pair could not see anything. Then the smell hit him.

"It was like rotting meat. The thought came into my head that he was dead but I didn't want to believe it."

Police were called to the scene early on the February afternoon but it proved difficult to find any of the 59-year-old's family. His body would have to have been buried or cremated after a few weeks if no friends or family were found.

The complex, owned by Housing New Zealand, was made up of about 40 single- roomed flats - occupied mainly by beneficiaries who shared a communal laundry.

It was only through an article in the Western Leader that sister Kristine Headland was alerted.

He was known in the family as a recluse but he wasn't always that way, his sister said.

Neighbours said Preston could be short-tempered at times but never showed any signs of sickness.

"I feel sorry for him," Nati said. "If he was sick, why didn't he tell anyone?

Headland said the news came as a shock.

She said Raymond was well loved by the family but became a bit of a recluse.

"[He] was still a very nice person," she said.

Preston was the second youngest in a family of six children who grew up in Mt Roskill. He had three sisters and two brothers and once worked as a builder. He had an amazing general knowledge - he loved to read, watch documentaries and also enjoyed horse racing.

Preston never married and had no children of his own but lived with a partner, Judith, for many years. She said he was a great role model for her two children.

"He was very charismatic and had a lovely way with the children. He was like a stepfather to them."

The last time she saw him was about a year ago. There were only a few obituaries for Ray Preston.

"Sorry to have lost contact," one read. "Rest in peace."


March 2010:

Richard Giese, 85, died of a heart attack in his Wellington flat, but was not found for 12 days. The Rita Angus village said checking up on the residents would be an invasion of privacy and independence.

March 2010:

Wellington pensioner Wiremu Whakaue, 68, was found in his city council flat in Newtown about eight months after he was believed to have died. Whakaue's power was cut off in August 2009 and his rent had been increased. The body was only discovered during annual fire alarm inspections. Just how many months he lay dead is now being investigated by the coroner.

August 2011:

Michael Clarke, 86, lay in his flat for more than a year before his death was discovered. A supermarket receipt, dated July 1, 2010, along with a newspaper dated July 2, were found inside. The window on his door was taped up so no-one could see in.

October 2011:

Police found a dehydrated toddler in an Upper Hutt flat. She had spent two days locked inside the flat with her dead mother, 28-year-old Lauren Ruthella Silbery. The little girl's first words were, "Mummy won't wake up."

February 2013:

Auckland man Raymond Preston, 59, lay dead for four days at an Avondale state house in West Auckland. Housing New Zealand said its officials visited residents at the complex on a weekly basis.

March 2013:

Neighbours described Dunedin man John Burrows Baird, 74, as a reclusive and quietly spoken pensioner. Police believe he lay dead in his home for more than six weeks. A pharmacist called police when Baird failed to pick up his medication since January.

March 2013:

A 37-year-old woman, Kirstine Hill, lay dead in her Hastings home for up to three weeks before her death was discovered. Police found her body in the kitchen of her semi-detached flat. A neighbour said afterwards: "Like most people along here, we keep to ourselves."

April 2013:

The body of Palmerston North man Lewis Clarkson was found after neighbours saw flies at his bedroom window. He had been dead for up to three weeks. Clarkson had only just moved up from Christchurch to pursue his business studies at Massey University. His estranged sister lived a few streets away.

 - Additional reporting by Jimmy Ellingham and Julian Raethel. 

Sunday Star Times