WELLS — Gary Singer of Lyman gets concerned when his 93-year-old friend, who lives alone, doesn’t show up for their regular card game, so he gives the friend a call to make sure he’s all right.

It’s not easy, however, for seniors to get out, and many haven’t made such social connections.

“If you don’t have family, who do you call?” Singer asked Thursday.

That’s a question many people are asking in response to the discovery of Lucie McNulty’s body in her Wells home more than two years after she died. Some also are wondering how so much time could have passed without McNulty being missed.

“It’s so sad she had no one who cared for her in any way. That’s crushing,” said Singer, who was playing bridge at the Wells & Ogunquit Center at Moody, the local senior center.

While the amount of time that McNulty lay dead in her bedroom is unusual, the reality is that Mainers do die unattended in their homes, unnoticed for days – and sometimes weeks. Although Mainers may want to keep an eye on their neighbors and prevent such things from happening, that can be challenging in a rural state where people don’t live close together and more than 30 percent of people over 60 live alone, said Jessica Maurer, executive director of the Maine Association of Area Agencies on Aging.

“Independence is rubbing right up against our desire to keep people safe,” Maurer said. “This makes us uncomfortable because we can’t imagine this for ourselves. This is a heartbreaking situation.”

OPPORTUNITIES TO STAY IN TOUCH

McNulty, a retired music teacher from New York who had lived in Maine for more than a decade and would have been 69, was found dead in her Wells home on Jan. 8. Police had checked on her house several times after receiving calls from concerned neighbors and an out-of-state friend, but nothing appeared to be wrong. McNulty, according to her neighbors and police, was a loner who purposely had little contact with anyone and had no family nearby. Nor did she participate in a local program that would have facilitated a daily check-in with police.

She also stayed away from the local senior center, which Diane Anderson said is like having another family. Anderson leads line-dancing at the center and has been involved since it opened 11 years ago.

She likes to think a fate similar to McNulty’s wouldn’t happen to her or the people she knows that live alone.

“Hopefully, the neighbors would notice. You should keep in touch with your neighbors,” she said, adding that the seniors she knows who live alone have family members who check on them.

Richard Driver, also playing bridge at the center, has three children living out of state that he communicates with regularly.

“With the Internet, we’re back and forth all the time,” he said.

MEALS ON WHEELS VISITS HOMEBOUND

While no one can force people to engage in their communities and talk to their neighbors, many homebound or otherwise isolated seniors sign up for programs like Meals on Wheels or regular wellness checks that provide contact with someone local. In some communities, police will check on seniors, or groups of residents will band together to check on each other, Maurer said.

Maurer has heard of cases in which people’s deaths go unnoticed for short periods. Last winter, a Fort Kent man froze to death in his home after his caregiver was hospitalized and he ran out of oil.

“Unfortunately, we see deaths like this every year,” she said.

Karen Wiswell, nutrition director for Spectrum Generations, an Area Agency on Aging organization that serves six counties in central Maine, said Meals on Wheels doesn’t just provide meals for the homebound. It becomes a lifeline and social event for many seniors who participate. Twice a week, a volunteer brings a meal to their home and stays to visit.

“It’s a meal, of course, but it’s also a safety check,” she said. “Sometimes it’s the only person they see.”

If a senior doesn’t answer the door, volunteers notify staff at the senior center, who then reach out to the senior. If contact cannot be made, police are notified. There have been times when volunteers have discovered someone who has died or needs medical attention.

“We don’t give up until we find what’s going on,” Wiswell said.

More than two dozen police departments across the state have programs in place that provide seniors daily check-ins with police or volunteers. Maurer said those programs can be effective, but it’s not always easy to get independent seniors to sign up.

“We do have a tremendous number of wellness check programs, but they’re really underutilized,” she said. “There may be a handful of people they’re calling every day, but there are certainly more people who could benefit from them.”

Andrea Harnum believes the programs can play an important role in seniors’ lives.

A former Wells High School teacher and Sanford resident now living in Arizona, Harnum read about McNulty online, and the story struck a nerve because Harnum views herself as somewhat of a loner.

The RV park where she lives now uses an “I’m OK” program in which people such as Harnum call the park management staff each morning to let them know how they are. Though she doesn’t go out into the community that much, she doesn’t view the daily check-in as a hindrance or even an invasion of her privacy.

“I call them when I get up each morning and I tell them I’m OK,” Harnum said Thursday evening. “It works here and I have no regrets about doing this. I feel much safer.”

POLICE OFFER CHECK-IN PROGRAMS

In Wells, the police department runs the “Good Morning” program to provide senior citizens and adults with disabilities a daily check-in with police. Each day, participants call dispatch from 7-10 a.m. to check in. If no call is received, an officer goes to the person’s house to check on them. Many of the town’s dozens or so participants provide police with a key and permission to enter their home if necessary.

McNulty didn’t participate in the program, which was launched about five years ago. Wells police Lt. Gerald Congdon said about a dozen residents are in the program, but following McNulty’s death the department is trying to raise awareness and encourage more people to sign up.

Seniors in western Cumberland County can sign up for the Senior Neighborhood Awareness Program sponsored by the sheriff’s office. Every day, volunteers call the 30 or so seniors enrolled in the program to check in. If a volunteer can’t get in touch with the senior, deputies will check on them. Sheriff Kevin Joyce said that for many of those seniors, the daily calls are the only contact they have with anyone.

Saco police considered implementing a similar program in the past and now may revisit doing so, said Police Chief Brad Paul. He said his department occasionally receives calls from residents who haven’t seen a neighbor in a while, but rarely does a death go unnoticed for more than a few days. Fifteen or so years ago, a woman died in her home and wasn’t found until her grandson notified police two weeks later.

“This (situation in Wells) brings it back to the forefront,” he said. “It’s difficult when you read something like this in the paper because people look at their own families and communities and wonder how this could happen.”

Joyce said he would like to expand the Cumberland County program if resources are available.

“These are the people we should be checking on,” Joyce said. “No one should be missing for that long and not be discovered.”

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.

 


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