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When a neighbourly welfare check saves a life

The Lismore App

Lara Leahy

31 March 2024, 9:00 PM

When a neighbourly welfare check saves a life

When a local business person's concern for her neighbour became too great, she reached out to friends and family for advice. Today, she is very glad she followed her instincts.

Cathy (not her real name*) moved into a new neighbourhood in October 2023. She has been happy settling into her new home, decorating, updating the garden and getting to know her neighbours. All but one.

An older lady, living on her own, was very protective of her privacy. Cathy never saw her outside, whether it was cleaning up or spending time in the garden. Lights were rarely used at night. Her car would go at times - Cathy presumably thought this was for work. She had been told the lady, we shall call her Jane*, was a nurse, so Cathy figured she worked shifts, and their paths had never crossed.

Cathy popped a letter of introduction into her letterbox, thinking it was a considerate thing to do. A reply was never received, so she left it at that - respecting the private ways of her neighbour.

Then in December, Cathy noticed the car stopped leaving the house. Over the Christmas break, the garden became unkempt. After a time, the car was no longer visible, but it was obvious to Cathy that no one was coming and going. “Perhaps away on a holiday,” is what Cathy thought.

However, by the end of January, when there was no change in the garden, she started to take notice of other things. The clothing hanging out was seemingly the same. There was never much that she could recall, but she made a mental note of it. It was not overly suprising, some people leave a few things out when they go away.

The next time she saw her other neighbours, she brought it up, and they brushed it off and said Jane just really likes her privacy. Apparently, there had been a situation a couple of years beforehand, when the garden got out of hand and there was a question of bills not being paid. It had all settled down well enough, and the neighbours were of the mind that this would, too. They said they had seen her twice in the 15 years they had lived there. They were very hesitant to break the reclusive ladies' wishes to be left alone.

Perhaps because Cathy had not seen this happen before, it just didn’t seem right, so she started to feel a little worried. 

“It was upsetting me more and more with time, until I was thinking about it constantly,” said Cathy, and you could hear the concern in her voice, “As a single person, it really gets you thinking.”

By then it was March. Cathy brought the situation up with friends and family one day, and spoke of the feeling in her gut that something was not right. Cathy’s friend and cousin both agreed that it was a good idea to do something. This gave Cathy the impetus to make the call to police to report her suspicions.

Mid-afternoon, it took 45 minutes to get through to someone - she was told that Mondays were busy days. Cathy told the police what she could, “Only I didn’t have much to tell - I really know nothing about her and I had never even seen her.” Cathy mentioned the car and the lack of lights at night, things she had been told - apparently she was a little deaf. “I didn’t even know if she was actually there or not.”

Cathy felt a little awkward as she could not answer any of the questions the police asked her, but she felt better knowing she had done something.

The police responded fairly quickly and were there in a handful of hours. “It was after dark and they had a spotlight. After about 10 minutes of knocking, they didn’t get a response. They called at Cathy’s place and asked if she had seen anything further. As there was nothing else to report, the police said they would contact her place of work, and left.

About half an hour or so passed, and the police returned. Cathy said “They were so onto it. I was impressed with them.” She heard them in the yard, she surmised, looking for a way in. “I heard a Bang - I figured it was a door being knocked in.” 

By this time, Cathy had been through a whirlwind of emotions, and she was dreading the potential news, yet hopeful that Jane was OK. Ten more long minutes passed. Then an ambulance pulled up. “As soon as I saw the ambulance, my heart stopped,” Cathy felt the emotions all come to a head, “Oh goodness, I just hoped she was alive, and then they brought the chair out.”


More tense time passed. Finally, Cathy saw the police support Jane outside. She recalled her thoughts “When I saw her I felt so much relief - she was OK, and I had done the right thing.”

The police lowered her into the chair to transport her to the gurney. The ambulance was there for a while longer, and then left.

The police rang Cathy to let her know that Jane was on her way to the hospital. “When the police found her, Jane couldn’t walk or talk,” Cathy said, “they didn't have any further information on what was wrong or what had happened to her. She couldn’t tell them anything.” Cathy felt for this lady and her situation and was so glad she had done something knowing it could have been a potentially fatal plight.

“That was it,” Cathy said. “The police left a couple of the lights on when they left. That was a couple of weeks ago. I don’t think she is back home, or the lights would probably be switched off.”

That night, Cathy received a call from her daughter, who she had related all the events to. “She said, “I can’t sleep, mum.” I couldn’t either.”

A couple of weeks later, and Cathy hasn’t learned any more about her neighbours' condition. The whole turmoil of emotions has settled, but when I asked her if she would do anything differently, you could see the concern return, “I would call sooner rather than later. If you have a gut feeling or see something change - make the call, it won't hurt anyone. Sometimes people are afraid to reach out and ask for help.”

“To think, all this time, I was just there. Older people often don't ask for help - they think it's a bother and don’t want to put people out. She’ll probably hate me when she comes back!” Cathy reflects on her actions with a smile.

If you do have a concern for someone, you can ring your local police station. The NSW police advocate “You do NOT need to wait 24 hours before making a report to police. If you have concerns for the safety and welfare of someone that cannot be located, attend your local police station to make a report as soon as possible.”


*Names and images do not reflect the actuals of those people and places involved in this story - they are protected for privacy.

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