The story of Bryan McGinty, the pensioner found days after he died in his Manurewa home, is not unique. What can we learn about caring for our elderly, asks Simon Collins
In one week in January 2015, Bryan McGinty lost his partner, his eye, his house and his cat.
He was 69. He was already vulnerable. His right eye had to be removed because he had waited too long to get help for a bacterial infection, and the manner of his partner's death was to be echoed in his own lonely death in a council flat four and a half years later.
"It was very sudden," his daughter says of that first death. "Similar circumstances. I was the first to enter the house and I cleaned up."
His daughter, McGinty's only child, feels that her father fell through "loopholes" in our social safety net.
She has spoken to the Herald in the hope that those holes can be repaired.
"There is nothing I can do to help my dad now, but maybe we can stop this happening to someone else," she says.
"If people can learn from Dad's death and how it came to be, the lead-up, then I know my dad would be proud of that."
A happy childhood
Her father's life began, 11 days after the end of World War II in September 1945, in the opposite of the lonely condition in which he died. He was a younger child in a Papatoetoe family of 13.
"He used to torment my grandmother, him and his brothers," his daughter says. "They used to put a bowl of water above the toilet door just before Nana went to the toilet. It would pour over Nana and they would have to hide."
"There was a shed in the back yard. He would tell me stories of how he would jump off the top of that holding a machete and chase his brothers and sisters around the yard."
He attended Holy Cross Catholic School and was a St John cadet.
Another family member describes his "wicked sense of humour".
"He was a hard case," she says. "We had a thing up at our place, like the All Blacks but it was the 'All Greens', we had this football match on our driveway. He just had a really strong sense of humour."
His daughter remembers: "He had a blue moped that he told everyone was a Harley. To him it was."
Life's ups and downs
As a young man he worked as a forklift driver. But some time after 1989, when his daughter was born and he must have been about 44, the job ended.
"I don't know the truth behind how he lost that job," his daughter says. "He still continued to look for work. Unfortunately he was not able to find work."
His personal life had its ups and downs too. He was engaged twice but never married, and separated from his daughter's mother when the child was only 1 or 2.
His daughter had a difficult childhood, brought up partly by her mother and partly by her maternal grandparents, and stayed with her father at weekends.
"He was absolutely and utterly devoted to me, growing up," she says.
"He lived in flats, and we used to go out into the back yard and make mud pies and throw them at each other. He'd chase me through the house with a hose, and I worked out very quickly that if I went and stood by the TV I would be safe."
He was about 54, and his daughter about 10, when he got together with his final partner who, his daughter says, "gave him about 15 very, very happy years".
They lived in a Housing NZ flat in Manurewa. But the flat was in the partner's name, and when she died, the tenancy ended.
His daughter didn't challenge it because she was distracted by her stepmother's death and her father's critical eye infection. After he lost the eye he needed rest home care for several months until he finally got the flat in Auckland Council's Leabank Court in Manurewa, where he stayed until he died.
His daughter, who lives in Napier with her husband and their daughter who was then only an infant, tried to get Age Concern and the Blind Foundation to help with her dad, but he didn't meet their criteria. Blind Foundation acting chief executive Greg Hurn says that in 2015 the foundation only helped people with less than 6/24 vision.
"In the last 12 months we have relaxed our criteria to enable us to support more people," he says.
Shutting out the world
By then, Bryan McGinty was refusing help from anyone.
"He just went downhill after the death of his wife, just withdrew into himself," a family member says.
He attended his daughter's wedding, but turned down her offer to move in with her young family in Napier.
"He wanted to stay close to his sisters. Coming down here it would just be us," she says.
"He started doing the shutting-down thing, shutting people out. On and off, it started before my step-mum died, and then he was fine up till last year and that's when he started shutting everyone out, including me - not answering the phone."
He started drinking excessively.
"I remember him having a few drinks when I was a child, but nothing untoward," his daughter says.
"Dad was a friendly drunk. He was a kind soul when he was drunk. Then when Mum died, it just took a nosedive."
He refused to ask his general practitioner for help.
"From the stories Dad told me, he didn't like his GP," his daughter says.
"The GP would not talk to me at all, not even the GP nurse. I tried to get him to find a GP that he liked, but he wouldn't. I suggested that I go to the GP with him, and he looked at me and said, 'No!' Dad knew his own mind."
In July last year, in desperation, the daughter asked a family friend to apply to have McGinty assessed under the Substance Addiction (Compulsory Assessment and Treatment) Act.
Waitematā District Health Board, which runs the region's alcohol and drug treatment service, says a detox nurse visited McGinty at his home six times and spent 60 hours on the assessment before finally deciding that he did not meet the criteria "because he could still take care of himself and make informed decisions about his care".
"He declined voluntary admission to detoxification services. He also repeatedly declined other ongoing treatment options that were offered to him including respite care and in-home support," it says.
The move seems to have only intensified McGinty's isolation.
"He had a falling-out with his daughter," a family member says. At some point he changed his next-of-kin record for his flat from his daughter to one of his sisters without telling either of them.
Unable to reach him on the phone, his daughter called police "three or four times over the last two years". Each time they visited his flat to do a "welfare check".
She never called Haumaru Housing, the company owned 51 per cent by Selwyn Foundation and 49 per cent by Auckland Council which took over the council's 62 pensioner villages in July 2017. She says that's because her dad asked her not to complain to Haumaru when the drains outside his flat overflowed in heavy rain.
Haumaru chief executive Gabby Clezy says: "We liaised with his sister, who was the listed next of kin. Mr McGinty's daughter was not in contact with Haumaru Housing during the period of his tenancy."
A family member says two of his elder sisters took him to hospital when he needed eye treatment, took him shopping and sometimes cleaned his flat. They last visited on May 28 or 29, a few weeks before he was found dead in his flat on June 24.
But his daughter says she doesn't know what her aunts did.
"I don't know their routine of visiting and checking in on him," she says. "In recent months his older sister voiced concern to me that he was not answering his phone.
"He showed signs of depression and anxiety. I used to get late-night phone calls from him in recent times. He was scared of something happening to me, scared of something happening to his grand-daughter."
His neighbours in Leabank Court became increasingly worried. One woman helped him back to his flat several times because he was leaning on his wheeled shopping bag to stay upright.
"We had several conversations about the weather and silly things. He was a loner, but he seemed a nice chap to talk to," she says. "They do say he drank, but all the times I helped him I never smelt liquor on him."
Six months ago she asked a Haumaru manager to check on him.
"To me, he was not capable of cooking himself a meal," she says.
On the Tuesday before he died, June 18, he seemed disoriented.
"The last time I saw him he was trying to put his key into my clothesline," she says.
"I went to get him and take him back around to his flat but he said, 'No, I have to go shopping, I've got a taxi.'"
When he came home that night, he set off the car alarm of another neighbour, Hone Hohaia, 74.
"It was Bryan, he was leaning on my car, huffing and puffing," Hohaia says.
"Twenty minutes later it went off again. It took him 20 minutes to get from the front of my car to the back of my car.
"I said, 'Bryan, are you okay?' He said, 'Fine, p--- off.'
"Next thing I saw him walking the wrong way. I said, 'Bryan, you're going the wrong way.' He said, 'Mind you own bloody business.'"
Hohaia went to help him anyway and says: "That's when he collapsed. I picked him up and said, 'I'll get you a wheelchair.' I went and got Jack, he has one of those walkers that you can sit on, so we took him back to his flat on that.
"When we got him home he said, 'Thank you very much, you can p--- off now.'"
It's unclear how long he lived after that. A neighbour heard noise from his flat the next day, June 19. But residents didn't see his lights on during the next few nights and tried several times to get someone to check on him.
Finally, his next-door neighbour rang Clezy on her cellphone late on Monday, June 24.
"Within an hour and a half, she had the ambulance here doing a welfare check, and they went in and found him dead."
What can we learn?
Bryan McGinty's story is not unique.
"We do have family members coming to us who say, 'I haven't seen my mum or dad, they don't answer the phone, what do I do?'" says the acting head of Age Concern Auckland, Kai Quan.
"I think the daughter did very well. We encourage them to call the police, or we can call the police to do a welfare check on people."
A Statistics NZ survey in 2016-17 found that 8.3 per cent of New Zealanders aged 75 and over felt lonely "most or all of the time", a rate matched only by young people aged 15-24 (also 8.3 per cent) and twice the rate of 35- to 44-year-olds (4.4 per cent).
A Massey University study found that older people who were visually impaired, like McGinty, were almost twice as likely as others to be severely lonely.
Professor Valerie Wright-St Clair, co-director of AUT's Centre for Active Ageing, says there has been "a breakdown in community connectedness" as families have scattered around the globe and paid work has become almost universal in the working age group, leaving old people alone in their homes during the day.
She and doctoral student Ivy (Yan) Zhao, who has been working with older Chinese immigrants, are meeting Housing NZ this monthto put forward the migrants' suggestions for regular community meetings and "an active contact person in each public social housing community to assist older people to solve their daily life difficulties".
Clezy says Haumaru already employs eight community managers across its 62 villages, or one for every 180 tenants, and has seven community rooms or houses plus one due to reopen at Leabank Court next monthafter renovation.
"Our community managers spend 80 per cent of their time in the field getting to know all the tenants, building their trust, looking after their housing needs and advocating for their welfare," she says.
Some tenants are happy. Dawn, who lives in Lancaster Court in Beach Haven, says: "We've got a lovely manager here. If we have any problem at all we can contact her any time of the day."
Dawn is helping to organise a mid-winter Christmas dinner and outings for fellow residents, but says many "don't want to mix".
"I do think it's up to us, we have to check out our neighbours as well," she says.
But Leabank Court tenants say they rarely see their community manager.
"She doesn't come in, she'll yell out, 'Are you alright,' and that's it," one says. "You're lucky if you see her once a month."
Grey Power's Auckland regional director Mate Marinovich rang Clezy to express concern after McGinty's death, but was satisfied that it was "a one-off because he must have been one really tough cookie".
But he adds: "There must be something that can be done."
"They need to have something in place like a panic button to the next unit where they push it so the person next-door becomes aware," he suggests.
Clezy says most Haumaru tenants live solely on the pension and "would meet the criteria for personal alarms funded through the district health boards, should their GP consider them necessary".
St John says their medical alarms can be funded by a disability allowance from Work and Income.
But resources are thin. Age Concern has just one field social worker for Auckland, as well as staff who check out elder abuse and organise volunteers.
Auckland's three district health boards are phasing out funding for day activities for older people by the end of this year.
"They are saying, 'We have funded you traditionally, we don't know why,'" says Mike Matthews of Communicare, which gets a quarter of its funding from the Auckland DHB.
Clare Williams of Vaka Tautua says "one-off philanthropy" has funded their activity programmes until December but after that, "we just don't know."
Matthews has tried to get a meeting with Seniors Minister Tracey Martin but has been turned down.
Quan says a major barrier to help for low-income older people is transport costs. St John provides a free health shuttle only in some parts of the country, and the Total Mobility scheme pays only half of public transport costs.
Former Counties Manukau Age Concern head Wendy Bremner says older people need "wraparound services" because many are scared to ask for help in case they end up being forced into a rest home.
Clezy has said Haumaru is a "social landlord", not a health service. Tenants can use Selwyn Foundation services, but the Community Housing Regulatory Authority requires "separation between the housing arm and the support services arm" so that tenants don't feel pressured into services they don't want.
But Bremner says: "One would hope that when you have an organisation like Haumaru that they would have systems in place to assess entitlements through Work and Income or if they need Driving Miss Daisy or Total Mobility."
"If it's not part of their role to check on their residents, then whose role is it?" she asks.
McGinty's daughter is angry that no one told the family when her father started falling over in the last few weeks of his life.
"We didn't know that things had got that bad," she says.
"Had I been contacted, I would have dropped everything. I would have been on a flight to Auckland had I known, but no one rang me.
"Yeah, it's not part of their contract to go and check on him, but the very least they could have done is communicated with his family, and to my knowledge they did not - because we would have been there. We would not have been going through this hell."