lifestyle

When everyone you love dies first.

By KATE LEAVER

A carton of six-month-old milk, a pair of cheap Chinese slippers, and a pile of neatly kept diaries.

That’s all that was left of a 90-year-old woman who died at home alone in the Sydney suburb of Auburn in January this year.

Her remains were not found until July. Nobody noticed she was gone, and nobody mourned her death.

If it wasn’t for a cleaner and a young journalist, the Auburn woman may have died without a trace. Just a pile of dust on the floor; the bitter, anonymous end we all fear the most.

That forensic cleaner was Lee Iordanidis, the owner of a recently deregistered forensic cleaning company. The journalist was Andy Park, a reporter for The Feed on SBS. While Lee cleaned the floorboards where this woman perished, Andy went through her diaries in search of clues about this woman’s identity.

He read thousands of pages written in her neat handwriting, and discovered that the anonymous woman who disintegrated through her own floorboards was once brilliant. She had a lively, fierce intellect and people who adored her. She studied medicine, travelled the world, and spent half a century with the love of her life.

When he died in 2001, she realised that she would be next. That death was coming for her, and she’d have to face it alone.

Moved by the way she wrote and the way she died, Andy Park made this extraordinary video about her.

It’s a powerful 10 minutes and 50 seconds.

Please, watch. It’s the only legacy of a woman who died utterly alone in this world.

The Auburn woman wrote about many things in her diaries: Love, philosophy, the quality of phone reception on her landline. She wrote about depression, being a widow, and why we’re all here. And she wrote, in jerky handwriting, about her impending death.

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This is just one of hundreds of unattended deaths that have to be cleaned up each year. You might remember Natalie Wood, the 86-year-old woman who died in her Surry Hills home but wasn’t found for 8 years.

Mamamia Editor in Chief Jamila Rizvi wrote about the astonishing sadness of Ms Wood’s death back in February when the story first broke. By the time that body was found, all that was left was a small pile of bones and a set of pink dentures.

How is it possible for a person to cease to exist and for nobody to miss her for eight years? Not her family, not her friends, not her neighbours, not even the city council expecting bills to be paid.

Natalie came to the end of her life at a time when there was nobody left living who was close to her.

And I find that so incredibly, incredibly sad.

I suppose that’s because I wonder who would find me if I died, how long it might take, how people would react, what would be done, how long they might be sad for. Stories like these prompt that momentary indulgent consideration of the inevitable deaths of those you love and of course, of yourself.

And surely, the only solace from those thoughts is the idea of love. That to be loved and needed and noticed by others in your life is what makes the idea of it all ending, bearable. And for Natalie that was not the case.

Natalie Wood.

As Andy Park reports, there are currently 1.9 million people living alone in Australia. With a growing ageing population — and no pragmatic plan for how we’ll deal with as a society — loneliness will continue to kill our senior citizens. It’s an epidemic. We know a little about the woman who died in Auburn, but there are so many more Australians who die alone without a legacy, without a trace.

If every person deserves a memory, we’ve got work to do. Do we want to be a society who forgets its elderly like this? That lets its oldest, wisest, and most vulnerable members disintegrate rather than help them?

We’re lucky that Andy got hold of those diaries.

He was able to piece together the identity of a woman whose life is worth remembering. He gave her the legacy she did not get herself. And in sharing her story, he’s forced us all to confront a gruesome secret: That elderly people are dying alone and forgotten. That deregistered forensic cleaners are sent into deceased estates to clean up the only remains of people who once meant something. That we are letting that happen.

If you would like to read excerpts from this woman’s diaries, you can – on the SBS website.

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