Unattended Death: What Is It and What Does It Mean?

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What happens when someone passes away at home, and nobody finds them for a long period of time? An unattended death, in legal terms, occurs when a person passes away in the absence of medical care but also refers to any death occurring without a witness.

Who Knows?

Sensational news stories about unattended deaths, such as that of Joyce Carol Vincent, 38, who lay dead in her living room for three years before discovery, prompt us to ask how such things can happen without society noticing.

Neighbors attributed odors from Vincent’s decomposing body to the smells from garbage bins below her open window. Not much is known about her, other than that she lived a quiet, seemly average life, with no close attachments. Her story caused a lot of people to look inward and wonder if they’d be missed if they died alone.

But many are. When a person dies alone, whether by suicide, natural causes or an accident, it could be days, weeks or even months before they are found. The telltale odors and pest issues related to unattended death vary, depending upon climate and season. Our society’s paradoxical attitudes towards privacy—even in the age of social media—mean that we often make a point to ignore the comings and goings of our neighbors, and if someone doesn’t return a phone call or post on Facebook, it could be days or weeks before we think something’s actually wrong.

Persons suffering depression tend to gradually withdraw from society, and the remains of suicide victims can go undiscovered for days, weeks or even months.

Who Is At Risk?

Seniors are at a higher risk of unattended death and delayed discovery, especially in a culture in which family members are spread around the country, and our elderly population retains more independence later in their lives. Heart failure, falls, and strokes occur more frequently among the elderly, no matter how active their lifestyle.

People of all ages can have accidents at home that prohibit them from calling first responders.

But How Do We Miss Them?

Think of a friend of yours who lives alone. If she missed your monthly book club meeting, would you be worried enough to call and check in on her? Have you been meaning to call your elderly uncle, but you’re so used to texting and e-mail that it’s difficult to remember to pick up the landline and give him a ring?

What about your former co-worker, whose Facebook posts a few weeks ago had struck you as a bit of a downer…but, you realize, you haven’t seen him pop up on your news feed lately?

Even our close friends can fall off our radar as our busy lives consume our attention.

Unattended deaths might not always garner the attention of London’s Joyce Carol Vincent, but they happen more frequently than we might wish to admit.

Unfortunately, those who pass away alone leave more than regret in their wake. When a person dies and his body remains undiscovered for any period of time, decomposition damages their environment, leaving family members, friends and landlords with the question, “How do I clean up after an unattended death?”

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Their Body Breaks Down

Almost immediately after an individual passes away, their body begins to break down. If left unattended, fluids, solids, and bacteria require professional cleanup services to remove biohazardous materials, odors and associated insect and rodent issues.

“After realizing we failed to step in and intervene with Aaron’s mental health issues, there was no way we could face the tremendous job of cleaning up his house,” said Helena Meyers, whose 34-year-old brother committed suicide 11 days before she and her husband asked Aaron’s county Sheriff’s department conduct a welfare check. That’s when they learned of the tragedy. “The deputy recommended Bio Recovery and warned us to consult with them before going to Aaron’s house. It was that bad.”

Clean Up For Unattended Death

The trauma recovery team cleaned up after the coroner removed Aaron’s body and law enforcement followed the standard investigations that typically follow unattended deaths. “Bio Recovery repaired the walls, the floors, everything. By the time we got there, it was done, and we could pack his things and get the house ready for sale without the horror of dealing with the aftermath,” she said.

“It really helped me, my parents and the rest of his friends and family better deal with the loss of Aaron. I think everyone left behind after a suicide or a tragic death has enough to deal with, emotionally. I don’t think he intended us to have to clean up after his death or feel guilty about not being there for him. He just wanted to escape the pain.”

A True Story About Trauma Recovery

Brad Barton is a property manager who has used professional trauma recovery services to clean and repair units in which tenants have expired. “We’re proactive in checking in on our tenants since many of them are elderly, but the law prohibits us from being too intrusive. Barton knows that a sense of community in his apartment complexes helps reduce crime and vandalism but has also helped neighbors keep an eye on one another. “Unattended deaths are an unfortunate part of the rental housing industry. We want our tenants to be safe and socially connected for their own sake, but…and I hate to sound morbid here…it helps to reduce the chances of someone passing away and not being found for weeks or even months.”

His firm sponsors weekly activities at each of their complexes, maintains a monthly furnace filter replacement program and has a sign-up program for any resident who wants a scheduled phone call to check in on their welfare. He uses interns from the local college to handle calls and help with social events. “It’s worked out really well. There are a lot of people out there who aren’t ready for assisted living, but who are becoming more isolated from family and friends.”

Can We Prepare For Unattended Death In Our Social Circles?

Does your community have a program for checking in with one another? If you live alone, how comfortable would your friends and family be in intruding on your life if they were worried about your well being? Have you had a conversation with the seniors in your life about maintaining regular contact?

Privacy and dignity are important in our culture, but we need to be sure we don’t compromise the safety and dignity of our neighbors and loved ones. After all, injuries sustained when an individual has no means of reaching help, or an unattended death without discovery is an indignity nobody wants to imagine for themselves or their families.

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