FOR three years Mavis Raines' inner Sydney neighbours mowed her lawns and tidied her garden, pushed letters under her front door, watched as the gas and water services to her house were disconnected. They thought she had moved to the country or gone to hospital. But she hadn't. She was dead. This week, three years after she died, the skeleton of 67-year-old Ms Raines was found on her kitchen floor by a policeman who hacked his way through the side garden, using a torch to look inside the back window. She wore a cardigan and track suit pants,her breakfast bowl and a carton of long-life milk still stood on the bench of the house where she had lived for more than 30 years. The tragic death of this old woman in her own home, undetected by neighbours, has shocked Australia. It's a story of suburban isolation and neglect that has welfare services appealing to people to look out for their elderly relatives and neighbours and the local mayor calling a meeting of police, council and health department representatives to try to prevent a repetition. But no one knows better than local policeman Senior Sergeant Wal Smith what wishful thinking that is: ''We probably get one case like this in a month in the inner west,'' he says. ''Most of the time the neighbours complain about the smell after a few weeks but this one took a bit longer. Except for the pong. I'd say there would be lots of lonely old people still lying out there.'' Reinforcing that view, the body of 80-year-old Melbourne pensioner Hugh Seddon was found in the backyard four days after Ms Raines was found - and two weeks after he died. Ironically, Mr Seddon had talked to his neighbour, Mrs Janine Hill, recently about how difficult it was for elderly people to look after themselves. Mrs Hill says she usually saw him every day, but lately she had been busy with her children during their holidays and had not had time to think of him. When she and her husband saw a report of Ms Raines' death, ''we just looked at each other and I said, 'I wonder how Hugh is?' '' The Salvation Army's Major Christopher Pack says Ms Raines' death highlights the importance of caring for lonely and isolated elderly people - a growing group in Australia - and keeping in touch with them. ''We have to keep in contact with them to make sure people like this lady don't die alone.'' But Ms Raines' neighbours and her one living relative, a cousin who lived a few streets away but had not seen her for six years, say they didn't deliberately neglect their neighbour. Her cousin Ian Gibbins, 62, says she wanted to be left alone so she got what she wanted. ''She had a good brain and she would have resented anyone calling over. She liked her privacy.'' ''If a person chooses to be by himself, then presumably he will die by himself. Personally, I don't have much time to think about Mavis.'' Neighbours who had moved to the quiet Annandale street since Ms Raines died were stunned to learn her house's gruesome secret. They had thought the house derelict, and the mail that piled up, for someone who had moved a long time ago. Another neighbour, Ray, had seen Ms Raines getting into a taxi with a suitcase in September, 1990, and thought she had returned to the hospital where she had previously been treated for a mental illness. The woman whose husband finally called the police was in tears that she hadn't done more: ''I feel so guilty. We should have done something. We lived right next door.'' Major Pack concedes that the stubbornness and independence of some old people can bring them disastrous consequences: ''The trouble is that folk who are stubbornly independent can die alone.'' But he says her death raises important issues: ''The community that is going to face up to the death of this lady has to look at all these issues - the impersonalisation of official systems, the way we [integrate] the extended family within our own family network and our relationship with our neighbours.'' Ms Raines wasn't robbed and a post mortem examination as to her cause of death has been inconclusive but it doesn't appear suspicious. It was tragic but perhaps the greater tragedy is that it is only the length of time her body was undiscovered that makes this case unusual.