Warning 15 years ago on elderly dying alone

ALONE TO THE END: Curtains are drawn in the unit, left, where Mr Clarke lay dead for months.
ALONE TO THE END: Curtains are drawn in the unit, left, where Mr Clarke lay dead for months.

Wellington City Council was given a stark warning 15 years ago about the perils of not checking on elderly tenants in its flats.

The Dominion Post revealed yesterday that pensioner Michael Clarke had lain dead in his council flat in Newtown since last year, without his neighbours or the council noticing.

His is just one of three cases before the coroner of elderly people in the Wellington area whose bodies were not found until long after their deaths.

In 1997, an elderly man was found dead in the same Newtown Park Flats where Mr Clarke had lived for 30 years. The man had been dead for several weeks and his face was unrecognisable.

His death prompted the Wellington coroner at the time to say: "It would not take much effort or imagination to put in place a system by which regular checks were made on people known to be living alone.

"It is for many a perturbing thought that they may die in those flats without anybody looking to see if they are all right," Erika Kremic said.

"The thought that someone else may be lying next door crawling with maggots is not very pleasant."

Yesterday, Mrs Kremic said she was disappointed that the council appeared not to have taken heed of her recommendations.

"This can be avoided if they took their responsibilities seriously. They shouldn't take elderly people if they don't want to take responsibility for them. I wish that they had acted."

Mr Clarke's body was found last Wednesday in his small bedsit in the flats in Mansfield St.

Council staff and police found old newspapers and out-of-date stamped food, suggesting that he could have died as long ago as June 2010, when he would have been 87.

However, a fire safety contractor said yesterday that he had seen Mr Clarke alive in November.

It is understood that no family have been in touch to collect his remains and that Mr Clarke had no family or friends.

He paid about $70 a week in rent by automatic payment, and the council estimates it would have collected $4000 from him since his death.

A council spokesman said there was little record of Mr Clarke. "He seemed to have lived a quiet and blameless life. He didn't cause hassles and he kept very much to himself."

Several elements had led to the late discovery of the body, he said. "It appeared he didn't get a lot of mail, and the mailboxes at the flat can take a lot of mail before they appear full."

Mr Clarke also lived in the end bedsit in his row, and the apartment next to him was vacant.

The spokesman said of Mrs Kremic's comments in 1997: "At the time we listened to the coroner's recommendations and we thought some of them were feasible and some of them weren't.

"We accepted some of her comments, but other comments were seen to mean unnecessary intrusion into people's private lives.

"It has to be said, a lot of our tenants aren't interested in being molly-coddled.

"We are a landlord of last resort – we do have lots of tenants who have mental health problems, are recently released prisoners [or] people with drug and alcohol problems."

Overpayment may be recovered

Social Development Ministry senior services head Mike Smith said when a person dies and there is an overpayment of their superannuation or benefit, the department may work with their bank to recover it.

"If money has been paid to other agencies, we would work with the executor of the estate to try and recover any funds owing. Once the date of death has been established we will calculate the overpayment and work with that person or agency to recover what we can. If this is not possible the debt will be written off."

Wellington City Council estimated Mr Clarke had paid about $4000 rent since his death. Mr Clarke had been receiving his superannuation since 1983.

A total of 157,000 people over 65, single and living alone receive superannuation or veterans pension; 441 are aged over 100.

Death date hard to pick

It will be difficult to pinpoint the exact time of Michael Clarke's death because the rate of a body's decomposition can vary greatly, a former Wellington pathologist says.

"Everything slows down greatly after a while – the first six weeks is the peak of decomposition and the changes," Ken Thomson said.

"After that the changes slow and it becomes increasingly difficult to have an estimate as to time of death.

"I've been involved in cases in the flats where the place has been closed up ... and they've been mummified and preserved very well after a long period.

"There are a lot of variables. They are never going to be able to be completely accurate with it."

The Dominion Post