Editorial: Loneliness may be a bigger killer

It seems like we have heard it all before; the old person who dies alone and is not discovered for weeks or months. Their lonely death an indictment on how, with better communications channels than at any point in history, we seem to have a poorer sense of community.

The latest story has a slight twist (and a lesson) showing that if death spares neither rich nor poor then loneliness and isolation are no less cruel and blind in their inexorable swathe.

Blind and alone, 81-year-old Anne Iddon shared a sandstone mansion with her husband's body until she, unable to care for herself, joined him in death.

It's not yet known how long Anne and Geoffrey Iddon had been dead before police found their bodies inside their stately Sydney home this week. Police suspect Mr Iddon died from natural causes and his wife subsequently passed away due to a lack of care.

"This is an opportunity to reflect on this tragedy and think about our elderly parents and neighbours and what we can do as a community and as individuals to prevent a recurrence of this terrible event," police said after the discovery.

These are the stories that emerge with ominous and shaming regularity. Some old and frail person has been found months after their lonely death in an apartment or a neat weatherboard house. They may be cliches but we have all heard them before, known them in the next street. This story merely adds a layer to its universality. 

How hard is it to say “hello” is a common question we constantly ask on hearing this kind of story, but the reality is wrapped up in our own concern in an increasingly interconnected and 24/7 world we sometimes shun, the strange of old fashioned warmth or discomfort of real human contact. 

The implications of this are more significant than this temporary sense of guilt. If Red Cross data figures are true and older people who say they are lonely have a 14 per cent greater risk of dying, then this adds up to significant impost on society as a whole. The figure would for instance mean loneliness has roughly twice the impact on an early death as obesity.

Every death of this kind reminds us just how lonely and alone we can all be.

We may ultimately all have to face death alone but that does not necessarily mean in society we should do it with a sense of loneliness or abandonment, regardless of age or infirmity.