(Image: Supplied/Unsplash)

One Sunday afternoon earlier this month, an elderly woman was left outside Nambour Hospital on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. She has no name and, it appears, no family or friends.

This woman stood out. She was distressed, agitated, and abandoned by a man who disappeared down Hospital Road.

Now, 16 days later, she’s been moved to the Sunshine Coast University Hospital and it appears we don’t know much more. It seems like the man was doing his civic duty by dropping this woman off at the hospital door. It is believed they are not related.

Mary Smith — for goodness sake, let’s give her a name — was non-verbal and unable to explain who she was or where she lived. It seems as though she didn’t know where she belonged.

Yesterday Nambour Police said the case was ongoing and nothing had really changed. Although she’s suspected to be between 80 and 90, her exact age is a mystery. We’re not even sure to what decade she belongs.

Mary Smith’s case is not being held up as evidence at any royal commission. It’s not the subject of lengthy political and policy debate about caring for our aged through a pandemic. It seems like Mary Smith doesn’t belong in those discussions either. It seems she doesn’t fit anywhere.

So how can a frail elderly woman belong nowhere, to no one? How can police not have solved the mystery when it’s so damn hard now to be anonymous?

CCTV and security cameras track our every move. Cameras fill our buildings and our streets; they’re at traffic lights and shopping centres.

Social media records what we think, when and who agrees and disagrees with us. The Chinese government has files on loads of us. And our phones can mark where we are at any point of the day or night.

Perhaps Mary Smith doesn’t have a phone or social media. Perhaps it’s easy to know so much about most of us, and nothing about others.

Even a spokeswoman for the Sunshine Coast Hospital and Health Service couldn’t help yesterday. She couldn’t provide comment on a patient’s care, she said, without their consent. We can’t even know if she’s being visited by volunteers.

Geoff Rowe, from Aged and Disability Advocacy Australia, says a case like this — being abandoned at a hospital — was, thankfully, rare. But it was not unusual for an elderly person to be put into respite and never collected.

“It’s part of the aged care system being broken,” he says. “We are dealing with an aged care system that’s not responsible to people’s needs.

“Desperate times. Desperate measures.’’

Perhaps Mary Smith was being cared for by someone who loved her dearly, but like so many others just couldn’t do it any more. Or perhaps she wasn’t. Perhaps she had a life rich with love and experience and travel. And perhaps she didn’t.

Once upon a time, the national outrage would erupt when someone was found dead after a lengthy period in their home. We’d fill talkback shows and newspaper columns with questions for their neighbours. When did they last check in? Or why didn’t they notice a mailbox stuffed with bills?

Did anyone notice Mary Smith some time, somewhere? Anywhere? Or was she not that important to anyone?

She could be my mother. Or your mother. And she’s lying in a Queensland hospital bed perhaps with volunteers visiting. Perhaps not. 

Does anyone really care?

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

What a year. Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW