In the course of several decades as a music teacher in western New York, Lucie McNulty reached a lot of people. But at the end of her life, she was alone, her body discovered recently at her Wells home some 2½ years after she died.

Although it’s unusual for a person’s death to go unnoticed as long as McNulty’s did, it’s not unusual for someone who lives alone to die alone. McNulty’s sad, solitary passing should raise questions about how to allow older people to maintain their independence without losing touch with the community around them.

McNulty moved to Maine in 2001, retiring here after a teaching career of over 30 years; last seen in the summer of 2013, she would have been 69 at the time of her death. Police had checked on her several times after hearing from a neighbor and an out-of-state friend, but nothing appeared to be wrong.

Law enforcement officials didn’t investigate further until the town contacted them, wanting to know how to reach McNulty and inform her of impending home foreclosure proceedings. Prompted by the history of fruitless checks on her well-being, along with the unpaid property taxes, the disconnected phone and the returned mail, police decided they had cause Jan. 8 to enter her home.

By all accounts, there were few opportunities to touch base with McNulty. She didn’t talk to her neighbors. She stayed away from the local senior center. And she didn’t sign up for services like Meals on Wheels or her local police department’s “Good Morning” check-in program for disabled residents and seniors.

So what can police do when an adult goes missing and doesn’t turn up? The options are few and have to be weighed carefully. To justify entering someone’s home without a search warrant, police need a specific reason, like blood or evidence that someone is in immediate danger. That’s as it should be. The right to freedom from law enforcement searches is so important, in fact, that it’s in our Constitution.

But there are ways to check on someone’s well-being without violating their privacy. If police had contacted Adult Protective Services, the agency might have conducted an inquiry “long before now,” Barbara Schlictman of the Maine Center for Elder Law told the Press Herald last week. And it’s good news that Wells is stepping up publicity for its check-in service, used by just a dozen residents now.

There are more than 300,000 Mainers over age 60, and more than 30 percent of this population lives alone. So as Maine’s senior population continues to rise, so will the need to brainstorm new ways to keep our elders from losing that connection to the outside world that can make the difference between solitude and isolation.


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