Natalie Wood. They say she was the woman Sydney forgot. When police found her in 2011 beside her bed, she would have been 87 years old. She had died eight years earlier, but no one thought to check on her. So there she stayed for almost a decade until her body was found.
While all of us will face death alone, there is something tragic about a life being so forgotten, to have no other human being mourn the loss of your passing or even notice you missing.
There must have been moments when she longed for some kind of human connection. Surely no one that socially isolated can feel completely at peace.
There have been studies that indicate close to half of older people living at home report being lonely, compared with about ten per cent in the general population. And a 2014 working paper by the Council on the Ageing (COTA) Victoria stated the number of socially isolated people will more than double by 2040 and is likely to increase as the population ages.
Social isolation and loneliness can lead to negative emotional and social consequences. It is linked to higher rates of mortality and the elderly who are subjected to “extreme loneliness” are more likely to die prematurely.
Some may say as society becomes more individualistic and self-centred, this sense of isolation is only going to increase. Others may say the loss of loved ones and human connections is the inevitable consequences of living longer.
But social isolation is something people and community organisations are endeavouring to change.
I chatted to a man named Henry last week. He came from Ireland 30 years ago and settled in Western Australia.
He volunteers for the Red Cross. Each Friday he goes into their offices and makes about 80 phone calls. He picks up the phone to make the calls at 7am. They go to homes from the North to South of Western Australia, registered to the Telecross service.
Telecross is a free service for the elderly. Every morning someone will call to check on them. To see if they haven’t had an accident or an illness. To check if they haven’t fallen and unable to call for help.
If the call is unanswered twice, volunteers like Henry will call an authorised person to visit their home.
“I’ve met some lovely people through volunteering. For many people we call, we may be the only people they talk to that day,” explains Henry.
But Henry does more than call people over the phone.
“I’ve become close friends with Ann through my time volunteering at another program, TeleChat, three years ago. She is 90 years old and has no children. No relations. She moved into a nursing home mid last year and I have started visiting her regularly.
“She is a lovely lady. Quiet, but she loves the West Coast Eagles and her mind is still quite active.”
Other than Ann, he now visits two other people in her residential aged care home.
“Their names are Peter and Monty. They are in their later years and they have nobody in the world.”
It may be too late for Natalie Wood. But it’s not going to be the same for Monty, Peter and Ann. Not if Henry can help it. Their lives are going to matter to someone. They’re going to matter to him.
When asked why he volunteers, Henry’s answer is a common yet remarkable one.
“I just wanted to give back. Even after 10 years, I’m not sure what made me want to volunteer. All I know is I get more out of volunteering than what I contribute. The way you can make someone’s day is incredibly rewarding,” says Henry.
“It’s nice. Especially when you get to know people by listening and talking to them.”
I guess that’s how we break down social isolation. Not just with new policies or research reports, but with thousands of people like Henry taking the time to make friends.